Hard Sun: A Danny Morales Mystery
by A.J. Llewellyn
~ Molokai ~
The voice on the other end of the phone sent me back through time, my mind spinning to a love in another time, another galaxy far, far away.
“Mando?” It surprised me how much his name made my heart ache and my voice crack. Cool moves, Morales. I wanted to rabbit-punch myself in the head.
“Yeah.” His tone was tender. It’s me.”
I bit off the inclination to blurt, “What’s up?” even though I hadn’t heard from him in seven years and never expected a phone call from him at my office desk in sunny Waikiki.
“We’ve got a bit of a problem.”
I’d say you have a lot of problems, Mando. Starting with your wandering dick.
“What’s going on?” I asked aloud, trying not to think of the life we’d once shared. I closed my eyes and mind to the time when he was mine. I thought I sounded okay, even if I felt like runny Jell-O on the inside.
He was quiet so long I felt the need to fill the void. I’d once left a bouquet of spring flowers at his door and he’d never responded. It had been devastating. I drove by to check a day later and the flowers and the love letter I’d written to accompany them were gone. I wanted to ask about them because the memory still wounded me.
“You still have the farm?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.
I squeezed my eyes shut when he responded with a husky “Yes.”
The image of running my tongue across his muscular chest remained seared in my mind, in spite of my best efforts.
He was on Molokai, a remote outer Hawaiian island. I was in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu. In an island state of just over a million people, 900,000 of them lived on Oahu. Seven thousand of them lived on Molokai. So, he might as well have been calling me from a different planet.
Why was Mando kicking up the hard-packed dirt of our fallen life? Why was he calling me?
“Something weird’s come up,” he said. “And when that happens I think of you."
“Oh, thanks a lot.”
He chuckled. “Don’t be offended. I think you'll be intrigued.”
“Really.” I couldn't disguise my skepticism.
“We got a call about a black suitcase left outside somebody’s front gate a couple weeks ago.”
“Okay.” Why would he be contacting me about a suitcase from two weeks ago?
“It’s complicated.” He sounded worried and I wondered how long this story would take since all I could hear now was his steady breathing.
I waited. I used to love the steady sound of his breathing. I—
Stop it, Morales. Just stop. I stared outside the shop front window of my private investigative business. Not so private with hordes of tourists stomping past all day long.
“Someone left the suitcase outside an old lady’s house and she called us. We got busy and nobody went out to investigate it.”
When I said nothing, he grew defensive. “We’re a small police force, and we’d just had a homicide. Our second for the year, in fact.”
I’d had no idea. Murder on Molokai was big news usually but I had missed reading about these cases. Before I could respond, he said, “The old lady left the suitcase out with her trash without opening it. It’s showed up outside her house again the following day. She freaked out.”
“That is strange. Is she sure the garbage collector took it?”
“I spoke to him myself. Says he took it with the rest of the rubbish. No idea how it got back there. I went over to the house with one of my officers. We opened the suitcase and found a priest’s complete gear for giving the last rights to a dying person.”
“Wow. That’s unusual. At least it wasn’t dead or mutilated animals. Or a chopped up human body.”
“I’d forgotten about your morbid mind.”
Mando went quiet for a moment. “I contacted the nearest Catholic Church, and sure enough it had been stolen from an unlocked car out front.”
“Okay,” I said again.
“We left it there. Somehow it turned up two days later outside my mom’s gate. The same suitcase. She called me. She sounded unglued and said she dared not open it fearing what she would find inside. I went over and opened it. Same suitcase. Same vestments. The question is why was it left there?” he asked. “What the heck is going on?”
I didn’t respond. Was he expecting a snappy answer? From me?
“The thing is, the suitcase showed up again this morning, even after we returned it to the church.” He sounded a bit hysterical. “The same damned suitcase with the same damned gear.”
“Where did it show up this time?”
“On my desk. It was sitting here waiting for me when I got in this morning. I need your help, Danny. This is getting really bizarre.”
I could handle bizarre. I just wasn’t sure I could handle Mando again, but he said the magic words. “I’m springing for a flight for you. Me, personally. There’s an e-ticket waiting for you at Mokulele Airlines. I’ll text you the confirmation number and you can check yourself in online. If you hurry, you can make the 10.30 flight. You’ll be here by eight minutes after eleven. Everybody here’s pretty freaked out. My secretary suddenly developed a bad migraine and went home. Please get here Danny. Maybe you can solve this thing by lunchtime.”
Man, it was hard resisting the urge to scoff.
“Oh, and my mom said you could stay with her. Maybe you should plan to be here a couple of days. Um, just in case. I don’t know how your er, juju works, but I know you’re the guy for the job.”
My juju was what broke us up. Mando didn’t believe in the dead speaking to people, or ghosts needing resolution, but for years I denied to myself that the dead wouldn’t leave me alone. It led to a successful career in a cold case unit on the island of Kauai. I gave up the force for a more tranquil life as a PI in Honolulu. So far, the dead were still being their pesky selves and now, I assumed, the antics didn’t stop at the shoreline of Oahu.
Mando’s come a long way if he’s asking for my help, I thought as I booked the ticket on my cell phone. I ran upstairs to the condo I rented in the residential hotel in which my office was located and threw some things into an overnight bag. I stared at the box of condoms in my bathroom drawer and almost laughed. Those things might as well have had cobwebs over them. I zipped up the bag, bid a hasty farewell to my empty abode then hustled to my car in the parking garage. I had to crank the engine over a few times because I hardly used the damned thing and headed to the airport.
I made it just in time for the tiny propeller plane to take me and my twelve fellow passengers to Ho’olehua Airport on Molokai. There was no WiFi on board so I couldn’t read news reports about the murders that Mando had mentioned. I couldn’t catch up on my lengthy to-watch list on Netflix either. I pressed my face to the window staring at clouds and patches of ocean beneath us as I thought about Mando. My stomach clenched. I tried to tell myself it was the roiling propellers.
Hearing his voice again bruised my soul. His birth name was Mandolin. His father was a music nut but Mando had always hated the name. I once told him his voice was music to me and he’d rolled his eyes. But I knew he’d liked it. Mandolin Wood. What a name.
We’d become friends in high school. Real, deep friends. Lovers in the last year of college on Oahu. I’d moved to Molokai with him taking a year off after graduation to “find myself.”
One year turned into two, then three, during which I joined the Molokai Police force. Unbidden memories flooded my mind. Hard, early mornings working on Mando’s daddy’s dairy farm, the three of us talking of alternative energy sources and sustainable farming, long before either became a national obsession. Mando and I couldn’t wait to spend long, lazy afternoons together in the small craft house that had once belonged to a retired luna, overseer of the property.
I often wondered if Mando’s dad ever suspected the true, hot and sweaty nature of our relationship; if he ever had any idea how much I obsessed over his son’s caramel skin, thick dark lashes and curvy, full lips. Even if he had he would never have admitted it. He couldn't have tolerated the shame of having a gay son. It seemed fitting to me that we were sort of outcasts, especially since the farm had once been created to sustain a different kind of social pariah - some of the island’s first surviving leprosy victims banished to Molokai more than a hundred years ago.
Though I’d asked him about his family business, I already knew Mando's brother had taken over day to day operations of Wood Farms and that Mando still tinkered with the alternative wind energy that fueled the farm when he had spare time. I knew that from the farm’s Facebook page.
Sometimes when I was drunk, depressed, or both, I Googled him. Mando didn’t have much of a social network presence. Nobody on Molokai does. It is the least inhabited of all the islands and has some interesting quirks. There isn’t a single traffic light or elevator on the island. Neighbors go berserk at the idea of homes being rented out on AirBnB. It sounds too much like progress to them.
I also knew that Mando was a detective on the island’s small police force and that he had recently escorted an accused killer from the island via a coast guard pilot boat to his arraignment at the criminal court on Maui. According to the reports I read, the man had blown his girlfriend away in front of a dozen witnesses. I wondered if this was one of the two murders he’d mentioned, or if there was another one.
In the YouTube video I’d watched, Mando had looked as gorgeous as ever in his jeans, black, collared T- shirt and navy flak jacket marked FBI across the back. He and his prisoner were flanked by camouflage-wearing, gun-toting Naval officers. The accused killer had looked deranged and guilty as hell with his tousled hair, barely-there stained tan shorts and ill-fitting tank top. He also wore flip flops, which were considered formal wear on Molokai. Track marks peppered the back of his ankles and his shackled arms as Mando steered him toward the boat.
Somebody on the island had shot the footage and posted it to the Internet. Not an official police video. More like somebody in the right place at the right time filming a human train wreck. A woman standing near the boat stepped forward and hugged Mando as he prepared to board the craft. He let her do it. Instinct told me it was the victim’s mom. My theory had been bolstered by the dirty look the woman threw at the shackled prisoner. On the boat, I glimpsed the arrested man shaking violently. Mando peeled off his light jacket and put it over the man's shoulders. It was an act of kindness so like Mando.
No matter what he’d done, the man was cold and Mando gave him warmth.
The video ended at that moment. I could still picture it vividly because I’d watched it several times. It struck me that this couldn’t be the most murder Mando had talked about because it had happened months ago. I hadn’t followed up on the case. It also seemed sad that another murder must have followed so soon. Molokai, as quiet and off-the-grid as it is has a deadly history. Disease had created the early population and yet decimated it at the same time. A different kind of one – drugs – seemed to have perpetuated the island’s legacy of loss.
We arrived thirty-eight minutes after we’d left Honolulu but I might as well have landed
on another planet.
on another planet.
A uniformed officer stood waiting for me on the tarmac as we disembarked. He held up a paper sign with D. Morales written on it. It could have been my imagination but to me, he looked petrified as his gaze skittered over the passengers. As the others walked inside the low, red-roofed building, I moved toward the officer and gave him a finger wave with my free hand.
“Mr. Morales. Sir?”
“I’m officer Juarez. Robbie Juarez. Detective Wood asked me to pick you up and drive you to the station.”
“Awesome.” I sounded like a moron and mentally shook my head.
“He said you could use one of our vehicles while you’re here. I’ll take you there now.”
As we walked to his jeep parked right outside the gated confines of the airport, a million tiny things came back to me about Molokai. Blue-speckled eggs that Mando’s mom would leave for me each morning. I began to sweat and I glanced up at the sky. I’d forgotten about the hard sun and soft rain of the island.
Emotion choked me.
This was the last place I’d seen Mando when he dropped me off at the airport. This was the final thing I remembered. No kisses. No goodbye.
Just the love I’d left behind.
“Want me to put that in the trunk?” Officer Juarez asked, pointing to my overnight bag.
“No, it’s fine. It’s got my laptop in it and I am very protective of it.”
He nodded and we got inside. His vehicle smelled like wet dog and sand. I deduced that Officer Juarez was a surfer who liked taking his dog to “catch some air” as they said on Molokai.
“What kind of dog do you have?” I asked, trying to be friendly.
“How…do you know about my dog?” He freaked out. Not the response I’d wanted. His eyebrows flew up into his hairline. Tears touched his eyes. Oh, man. Was he gonna cry? “Mando warned me. He said you were spooky.” Officer Juarez rubbed the key tag in his grip. “How do you know about her?” He repeated, his voice a whisper.
“Relax, brah. I can smell her fur.”
His face crumpled then and the grief poured out of him. “But she died five years and four days ago.”
Oh, Buddha. I turned to look over my shoulder. The dog was sitting in the backseat, face to the sun. She was a beauty, her face half black and half white. She wore a pink leather collar with a pink, heart-shaped nametag.
The dog looked at me and I saw her name. Leilani. She let out a long whine. I put my hand on the weeping cop’s shoulder.
“Her name is Leilani, right?”
Robbie Juarez dropped his hands from his face and twisted in his seat. “How do you know that?”
“I can see her. She’s a border collie. Black and white. What a beautiful lady she is. Pink collar and tag. She’s sitting right behind you.”
“That’s where she always sat.” He swiped at his tears with the back of his hand. He stared at me. “Is she…is she okay?”
He was hanging on my words. The living always do. This is the part of my work I love. Assuring them that their loved ones are in a beautiful place on the other side of the rainbow.
“She’s fine. Happy.” My heart broke when Leilani turned again and I saw the massive, misshaped mass on her face. “No more cancer. She feels no pain.”
“Oh my God.” He wept fresh tears. “I would have done anything for her. Anything. And the one thing I couldn’t do was save her.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “Not everything.”
“What do you mean?” He stared at me, incredulous.
“She says you need to get another dog.”
He shook his head. “No.”
“You will be honoring her.” Geez, this is breaking my heart. “She also wants you to surf again. She said she will always be with you. You ever want to talk to her, she’s right here.” I looked around. “You cops get to use your own vehicles for work, right?”
He shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Then wherever you are, so is she.” The dog whined again. “Leilani says there is a senior dog at the shelter. You saw her Saturday. She has a lot of life left in her. No illness. Just a heavy heart. Her owners dumped her for a puppy. Leilani says the dog needs you as much as you need her.”
“Oh, my God. That’s true. My wife’s been getting at me to adopt the dog. She’s beautiful but I…”
“Leilani says it’s time.” I turned but the dog had vanished. Another one forced to leave love behind her.
Robbie kept crying for a moment, then pulled himself together.
And then the dog came back. For an animal, she was a real yackity-yacker.
“What’s going on?” Robbie asked.
“She said you need to get the dog today because they will euthanize her since they don’t think anyone wants her.”
“Oh, my God!”
“Call your wife,” I said.
Leilani, the bossiest dog in the world then issued a short bark. “Oh. That’s sad.”
“What’s sad?” Robbie fumbled for his cell phone and dropped his keys on the floor.
“Leilani said they are calling the dog Maggie but it’s not her real name. Her owners never gave her one. The dog likes the name Maggie and says she looks forward to being part of your family.”
Robbie shot me a look as he got out of the car and hunted for his keys.
“Did she really say that?”
“Because the dog’s name is Maggie. The shelter told my wife she was taken there and no name was given to her.” He held up his cell phone. “I’m gonna call my wife right now.”
“Sure.” I watched as he paced outside and muttered into the phone. The dog whined behind me. She missed the touch of fur-on-skin. I knew how she felt. I hoped she wasn’t trying to tell me to get another dog because I wasn’t ready since losing mine a long time ago. My mom had a dog and to me that was plenty.
I reached out to give the spirit-dog some comfort but her gaze remained on the officer outside. Lord, she loved that man.
As soon as Robbie ended his call, Leilani vanished. He got into the jeep again, all sunshine and smiles. “My wife wants to meet you. She wants you to come to dinner tonight.”
“If I’m still on the island, I would enjoy that.” I tried not to think of my mom’s dog and how she came to adopt her. It was thanks to a murder case I’d worked on. I worried about the black suitcase now and wondered what new mysteries it would bring to my life.
“Please don’t tell anyone about you know,” Rob pointed to his tear-stained face as he started the engine.
“Don’t worry, I won’t.” Lorelei still panted in the backseat and the scent of her salty fur hung on the air but I realized she wasn’t trying to impart anything of spiritual significance to me. She was just happy to be noticed, and to have her face in the sun.
We drove in silence, and at a snail’s pace. Make that a crushed snail. Rob drove at thirty miles an hour, forty-five being the top end of the posted speed limit. I gritted my teeth wanting to scream at him to pick up the pace then remembered this was Molokai.
Slow down, I reminded myself. Breathe.
And I did. I hadn’t realized how tense I was. The back of my neck was so tight that as I shrugged my shoulders, small spirals of pain shot up my head. I focused on breathing. I’d forgotten how much I loved the smell of the island. Fresh earth and flowers. I loved the fact that not a single car honked. There were still no traffic lights. I was surprised to see through the passenger side mirror that there were three cars behind us on the highway that took us from the center of the island toward the coast, or makai, as we called it. Toward the sea.
“Traffic jam,” I joked.
“Yeah. Gettin’ real rough here.” Robbie grinned at me.
“Mando mentioned you had a murder here a couple of weeks ago.”
Robbie’s face fell. “Yeah. It was a bad one.”
“What can you tell me about it?”
Before he could respond, his cell phone rang. He checked the readout. “Guess I just got me a new dog. My wife placed a hold on Maggie and she’s heading over there now.”
“I nodded. “That’s great news.”
Robbie seemed happy now, his spirit lighter. “Thank you for helping us,” he said. “I hope you can come over tonight. I’ll give you my cell phone number and we can stay in touch.” He shot me a glance as he veered off the highway. “I think it would be really wonderful if you could meet Maggie.”
“So do I.” It would be a lot more wonderful than being with Mando’s mom. She had never liked me. From what I remembered she didn’t like many men. Mando must have had a new man in his life if he hadn’t invited me to stay with him. Then again, maybe not. His parents had divorced long ago and both Mando and his brother had been stuck in the middle of the most unpleasant events possible.
“We’re here.” Robbie shut off the engine. The eight-mile drive from Kaunakakai had taken us seventeen minutes, not that I was complaining. We got out, and Robbie pecked away at his cell phone.
The old station looked the same with its red roof and massive hau trees out front. I spotted a vintage, pale blue Mustang parked beside a row of other vehicles. It couldn’t be. Could it? Was Mando still driving the same vehicle?
He must have been watching because he came outside to greet us. He wore a navy, collared T-shirt, jeans and work boots. We shook hands. The ribbon of electricity that shot through me woke me up. Yikes. It was still there. All the feelings. Everything.
I wanted it all back.
I tried not to think of the ignored flowers and love letter. The strange call telling me he couldn’t be with me. He’d met someone else. He’d packed my few belongings and left them at the door of my cottage on his family’s farm. I’d left not long after that. And hadn’t come back.
“Hey, Mando,” I said.
“Hey.” He dropped his hand and flicked a glance at Rob. “He freak you out yet?”
“Yeah. I owe you five bucks.” Rob handed me his business card. “Call me when you know your schedule later.” He pushed past us into the building.
“Thanks for the ride,” I called out, stashing the card in a zippered compartment of my overnight bag.
“No problem,” he responded over his shoulder.
“Let me show you the suitcase.” Mando’s abruptness surprised me, but then this was the guy who couldn’t wait to get me to the airport and off the island seven years ago. I followed him inside. He took me into a small interview room that seemed stifling and pointed to a desk. “There it is,” he said as though I were blind. He smelled of good soap and a faint trace of some kind of smoky aftershave.
Are you in love? My mind screamed at him. Does he make you happy? Do you ever miss me?
He pointed to a manila folder beside the black suitcase. “These are the reports we have.”
I put my bag down against the wall and picked up the file as he closed the door on the other officers. I noticed a lot of them craning their necks for a look at me. Why?
“Got any thoughts yet?” Mando asked.
I glanced at him as I studied the three scant pages. “Not as yet, no.”
“Do you get a sense of something, some…evil entity doing this?”
I gave him my full attention. “I don’t sense anything right now. Why would you ask me that?”
He winced. “I didn’t tell you everything.”
I almost laughed except that somehow I sensed the black suitcase had some heavy island mana attached to it. “Before you explain, let me ask you a question.” He kept his anxious gaze on my face as I continued. “You told me on the phone that an old lady found the suitcase outside her house and she threw it out. Why did she do that? Why not hang onto it for a day or two until you could investigate? It seems an unusual response.”
He blew out a breath. “It wasn’t the first time it showed up at her door. Or, um, other people’s.”
A-ha. “How many times now?”
His face flushed a deep crimson. “For the old lady, this was the eighth time over the past year.”
I gaped at him. “Eight times?”
His shoulders sagged.
“Is there a pattern to its showing up? Is it on Sundays or religious holiday? Is it—”
He cut me off. “Always right before a murder. Or an attempted murder. We’ve had a huge increase in them lately. When this bag shows up, people go a little nuts.”
“Do the murders or attempted murders have anything to do with the people who find the bag?”
“No. Well, sometimes. I mean it’s a small island. Most people are aware of one another. Locals, I mean.”
“And the old lady didn’t leave the case on your desk this morning?
“She swears she didn’t do it. I believe her. Nancy Hakuma’s kind of a shut-in. It would take a lot to come all the way over here. It’s a four mile walk. She doesn’t drive anymore and she’s not in the best of health.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “I bet people are going a little nuts with this bag showing up everywhere. I had no idea there were so many assaults. That never used to happen here.”
“It’s the drug trade. Drugs are rampant here. Causing hella problems. We spend half our time setting up stings. It’s out of control. We’re the second-highest US state behind California with meth being a huge problem.
“Meth is the bane of my existence. Tina, crank, batu, ice, chalk, crystal. Whatever name you give it, it’s killing my island. We can’t touch it. It keeps getting worse. Molokai has become a haven to a few mainlanders lookin’ to live off the grid and just be left alone. But something happens to ’em here.”
He looked so troubled my heart broke for him.
“I don’t know if it’s boredom or rock fever, or what the hell it is, but once they try it, meth changes people. I’ve talked to so many addicts. They all say they know that one way or another it will mean death. To them, or someone close. I try to help them. Convince them to get clean. They lose everything but they just don’t care. They just wanna get high. They kill their family members. Friends. Sometimes they make them disappear. Sometimes they don’t remember what they did. Don’t remember the murderous rage. We’ve had a couple of women just vanish. Neither of them were addicts but the men around them were. One guy was causing a lot of problems but disappeared. It’s torn his family apart.”
He paused. “They call this the Friendly Isle, you know, but it’s not so friendly now. Around the station we call it the Deadly Isle.”
“It’s easy to make people disappear on Molokai, especially the other side of the island,” I said.
The other side was hard to get to and involved a lot of climbing and trekking, or traveling by boat. Kalaupapa had been carefully selected eons ago as a dumping ground for leprosy victims because it was difficult to escape from. The very early folks battled for their lives through no fault of their own but Mando and I knew the stories. We knew of people who had jumped from the imposing cliffs to their deaths to escape living terror.
It wouldn’t take much to hurl a body off those cliffs to this day.
He closed his eyes. “We’ve been given a tip, unverified as of now, but a reliable informant says that one of the two missing women showed up on Maui yesterday. She was found wandering Kahana Beach after vanishing six months ago. Fuck, Danny. You’re still so handsome.”
He took me by surprise. So much so that I had no response. I wasn’t used to mixing crime work with passion. God, how I missed him…
I almost made a move toward him.
He beat me to it, reaching out to touch my lips. He used to do that a lot. One of us would always wind up buck naked on the floor taking it the hard way. I didn’t care in that moment if it was me. I wanted him.
I held my breath as he traced my mouth, as though having forgotten it. He dropped his hand again. Ten seconds later his lips crushed mine in a searing kiss that did some weird chemical things to my body. His hot tongue darted into my mouth. I dropped the file on the table and grabbed his head in my hands.
We were drowning in each other and my heart and cock leapt at the sensation of kissing him again.
As quickly as he started it, he pulled away from me again. “Each time the suitcase appears, there’s an assault of some kind.” He spoke a little too loudly, trying to catch his breath. His gaze flew around the room and I wondered if we’d been caught on camera.
He paced and I slipped right back into business mode myself. “And the old lady had the suitcase show up several times. Why?”
“Her son, Jim, is a sort of musician and part-time drug dealer. He’s been shot once. Shot another guy. Shot two guys, actually. His mom, Nancy Hakuma, bailed him out each time. He’s involved in another shooting incident that occurred two weeks ago. The victim was his best died. Shot him in the head after they had an argument. ”
“This the murder you talked about?”
He nodded. “Jim was distraught. Lied about it. Of course. Hid in his mama’s bathtub but we found him. I took Jim Hukuma to Maui myself. Had to talk Nancy out of hocking her house to post bail. I think Jim’s been a major heartache for her.”
“Can I talk to her?” I glanced at the page revealing her details.
He nodded. “Sure.”
“What about the church? Why did they claim ownership of the suitcase? Is it theirs?”
“They say the clothes belong to a priest there. But he’s out of town right now.”
“Where is he? Does he know the suitcase keeps vanishing?”
Mando ran his tongue around his lips. He seemed nervous now. “He’s visiting family on Maui. Won’t be back for a few weeks. Church elders haven’t been especially helpful. The priest is Father William Bowe. I think the other priest we spoke to was upset that somebody keeps stealing the suitcase out of Father Bowe’s vehicle.”
“So why doesn’t he lock the car?”
“People don’t do that here.” Mando looked at me. “Besides, I’m starting to suspect this is something supernatural. The priest at the church is no longer taking my calls.” His cell phone rang and he extracted it from his back pocket, grimacing as he checked the screen.
“Do you have a list of the crimes that occurred after the suitcase showed up?” I asked.
He gazed up from his phone. “Yeah. We have one. I’ll email it to you.”
“I don’t need it right now. I want to get a feel of the suitcase and its contents, then I’d like to see the list.”
“Copy that.” Mando re-pocketed his phone, a distracted look on his face.
Maui governed the island of Molokai. I was surprised that Mando hadn’t contacted Father William Bowe, but maybe things hadn’t seemed so peculiar until today. I’d track down the priest myself.
Mando’s cell phone trilled again. “I gotta take that, sorry.” He looked at something fascinating on the floor as he put his still-ringing phone to his ear.
“Mando.” I held up a hand. “Wait. Has the suitcase been dusted for prints?”
A strange look crossed his face. “Not until this morning. I knew you’d ask, so I did it myself.” He took the call. “Wood.” He seemed rattled as he spoke, his gaze locking with mine. “Too many prints. Nothing useful,” he whispered then walked out of the room.
I followed him out into the squad room. I knew from my late night Google searches that the station featured a force of thirty cops. I couldn’t catch the attention of a single one. A female detective finally took pity on me and approached me.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
I suddenly got the creepiest feeling about the suitcase. What was the story with Father William Bowe? What else wasn’t Mando telling me?
“I need some latex gloves,” I said.
“Sure thing.” She gave me a curious glance. “You’re Danny Morales, right?”
She smiled then. “You worked with my brother on the cold case unit, Ke ’Ahi Pio’Ole.”
That was my unit. My refuge from my shattered relationship with Mando. The unit is still called Ke ’Ahi Pio’Ole, Hawaiian for The Fire That Never Burns Out. Because murder has no time limit. We always fight for justice.
“Who’s your brother?”
“Charlie Kinau He speaks so highly of you.”
I smiled. “Are you Dana?”
She gaped at me. “Say, you are good!”
I laughed. “Nah. Charlie speaks highly of you, too.”
She gave me another huge grin and rushed over to a desk, producing some gloves from a box in a drawer. She handed them to me. “Can I watch you work?”
“I don’t think it will be very exciting for you.”
“A lot more exciting than redirecting traffic around a fallen tree on Kam V Highway,” she said.
“That makes sense. Listen, can I bounce some stuff off you?”
She seemed startled, then pleased. “Sure thing.”
“Mando is getting me a list of crimes associated with the suitcase I’m going to examine.”
“You want the list?”
She took off running and I retreated back inside the room. I donned the gloves and opened the suitcase. It was a little intimidating seeing all the items. Faint smudges from the fingerprint powder lingered on the insider lid and lip of the case. It gave me a small thrill to touch something Mando had handled.
Get a grip on reality, Morales, I chided myself. Oh, man. He’d touched my lips. He’d kissed me. I wanted him to kiss me all over. Especially on my—
I stroked the garments neatly tucked in the case, lingering over the stole. I caught mental glimpses of a tall, dark-haired man, kneeling, giving Last Rites to a car crash victim on a dirt road. The image shimmered. Nothing for a moment. The strongest vibes came from the stole so I laid my palm flat on it.
A new image.
The same man stood in a church graveyard, wearing the clothes that were now in the bag. The sky wad dark. Late afternoon. He knelt beside a dog. A skinny dog looking fearfully up at the priest who bent down and petted her head. I saw weak little puppies suckling at her. Once again the image faded.
Even though I removed my gloves, I picked up no more tangible clues from the stole or cassock. How disappointing.
“What did you get?” Dana asked me.
I’d forgotten she was in the room. I shook my head. “Not much. I saw him giving Last Rites to a car crash victim.”
“How do you know it was a car crash victim?”
“I don’t know. I just know.” I could never explain to people how I worked.
“They don’t call it Last Rites anymore,” she said. “They call it Anointing the Sick.”
“Good to know.”
A knock at the door interrupted us. Mando poked his head around the frame. “Dana, they need you outside.”
“Okay.” She looked reluctant. “I’d much rather work with him.”
Mando smiled. “Wouldn’t we all?”
She signed and handed me her list. “I’d love it if you keep me in the loop,” she said.
I nodded. “I will. And thanks.”
Once she left the room, Mando focused on me. “You okay? You need anything?”
“Nope. I’m gonna go out. Talk to some people.”
“Oh, take my car.” He came over and gave me his keys.
“You don’t need it?”
“Not for several hours. I’m flying over to Maui to interview our missing woman.”
“So she is one of yours.”
“Yep. Hospital sent us photos. It’s her. Looks the worse for wear. She has a head injury but she’s awake. I have no idea if I’m wasting my time because so far she says she remembers nothing.”
“Is her disappearance connected at all with the suitcase appearing any place?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact.”
I studied the list Dana had given to me and Mando moved closer, pointing to the woman’s name. Lisa Maria Kalima. Vanished from Penguin Bank, Molokai in October, 2016. Her boyfriend John Kawicki says they were fishing from his rowboat when a big wave washed over them. Kawicki says they capsized. He almost drowned and never saw Kalima again after she went under.
Lisa Maria is Caucasian, 5-foot-3, blonde, shoulder-length curly hair, 130 pounds, she was last seen wearing cut-off jean shorts and a red bikini top.
Update: Anonymous tip saying Nowicki and Kalima went to purchase drugs from a man in a speedboat but the deal went bad. Nowicki told friends the dealer robbed them and abducted Kalima. Nowicki has since left Molokai for the mainland. Whereabouts unknown.
Penguin Bank was a popular local spot where people liked to whale-watch, fish, and dive since it topped a massive submerged volcano and—
“Are there photos of her?” I asked Mando.
He nodded, pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped through it until he found one. I studied it. The woman looked pale and disheveled.
“She’s scared,” I said.
Mando narrowed his gaze. “That’s what her doctor says.”
“You got her under armed guard?”
“I just asked for a uniformed officer to stay outside her hospital door.” He moved beside me and flicked through his photo gallery. “This is her around the time of her disappearance.”
For a moment, unpleasant sensations washed over me. I got a flash then, and glanced at the priest’s suitcase.
“What?” Mando asked.
“You got a photo of this Nowiciki guy?”
“Yeah.” He ran through his photos again and pulled up a photo of a brown-haired man with protruding, dark eyes. “What are you sensing?”
I shook my head. “Nothing. I thought at first he might be dead. I got a vision when I touched the priest’s clothes of him giving Last Rites to a young man at the scene of a car accident. I saw the victim’s face clearly and thought it might be Nowicki.” I frowned. “Nowicki is still alive and if he knows that Lisa Marie is alive, he’ll try and kill her. Again.”
Mando pocketed his phone. “So, this wasn’t an accident like he said. Wait. Did you just say he’ll try and kill her again?”
“I think there was a drug deal that went bad. She screwed over both men.” I already knew it would not turn out well for her. Whether she would lose her life over this incident, or another one, she was in trouble. Lisa Marie had pissed off some big-time drug dealers. “She was held captive somewhere. Some kind of game of cat and mouse. She escaped. Her days are numbered.”
Mando closed his eyes. “Interesting. Listen. I gotta go. Stay in touch, yeah?”
“I will.” I couldn’t believe how bummed I felt. I wanted to be with him. With him leaving the island it wouldn’t happen.
He left the room and my heart belly flopped in my chest. What the heck was going on with me? And with him for that, matter? Why had he kissed me? Why did he always seem to keep running away from me?
I packed up the suitcase, grabbed it, my own travel bag and the folder and walked outside. I stared at Mando’s car. Memories of our fast and dirty lovemaking in the back of it lingered in my mind. Damn. Was I grinning? I stashed the bags in the trunk and got into the driver’s seat.
Once again I opened the folder. I went through each page. Who to start with? It was a tossup between the church and the old lady. I’d have to see Mando’s mom at some point, too. She had been the type to know everything that went on around the island. I had a feeling nothing much had changed.
As though he sensed my thoughts, Mando texted me.
Mom knows you’re here. She wants to see you. Drop by for a quick lunch and drop off your suitcase.
I texted back, okay then went to the church. I took my time driving on the dirt roads. I got friendly waves from a few pedestrians. I was surprised I remembered my way around. Some streets still had no names, only markers. For some reason the theme song from Green Acres played in my mind. I tried not to tap my foot to it.
Outside St. Basil’s church, I parked and checked the page related to it. One of the officers had spoken to a Father Tell. Interesting name. I got out and walked toward the building. I noticed the graveyard and moved over to it. It was the same one from my vision of Father Bowe. How weird. I walked around, but got no sense of the priest.
I moved back to the front entrance but kept staring at the graveyard.
Something’s wrong. Very wrong.
The door was locked so I walked around to the back. A lone black car was parked under a portable car port. I wondered if it was Father Bowe’s vehicle. I took out my cell phone and called Rob at Molokai Police station.
“Who do I call to get a number plate checked out?” I asked.
He chuckled. “Betty Nolan. Here’s her number. I knew you’d crack this case.”
“I haven’t yet.”
“Think you can solve it today? I got fifty buck riding on you.”
I rolled my eyes. I’ll do my best.” I ended the call and contacted Betty Nolan on the number Rob texted me. Within a minute she gave me the owner of the vehicle as Joshua Tell. Obviously Father Tell. I saw no other vehicles around. Where was Father Bowe’s car? I looked at the paperwork again. There was no mention made of whose vehicle the suitcase had been stolen from. I walked over and tried the door handle.
I closed it again and went to the church’s back entrance. It was locked. I walked through the graveyard again and searched for the spot where I’d had a vision of the dog and her puppies. It took me several minutes to find the exact place. I felt a sort of hum, which told me I was on the right track but hadn’t sorted through the messages and images yet. I let out a sigh. I had a bad feeling Rob was about to lose fifty bucks.
I drove to the Makanui Road address listed for the old lady, Nancy Hakuma. She lived four miles east of Kaunakakai, the man hub of Molokai. The directions were typical of the island: Turn makua off the main road and head half a mile straight up the hill. The house is located at the end of a long driveway another half mile off the residential road.
It was an arduous journey because the road was so narrow and I worried about doing something to damage Mando’s car. I understood now why he said it would have been a difficult walk for the old lady. Mando’s Mustang protested a little as I took the steep incline up to her house, which sat high on a vast acreage of property. The house itself was small and faded-looking but its wraparound lanai was the stuff of dreams. I braked and parked then got out to absorb Nancy Hakuma’s spectacular three-island views, picking out the tiny island of Lanai shrouded in mist near the horizon.
The front screen door of the house opened and banged shut. An elderly Japanese/Hawaiian woman slippah-shuffled out and stared at me. I recognized her as being the woman who’d run a nursery with island flowers, mostly protea she and her husband sold to supermarkets on the Big Island and Oahu, and also shipped out to tourists visiting one of the three hotels on Molokai.
“E komo mai. I remember you.” She pointed a bony finger at me.
I smiled at her Hawaiian greeting of welcome. “I remember you too. You lookin’ good, Aunty.”
She wasn’t the warm, laughing type. Never had been. Misery clung to her like a wet, winter coat. Memories flooded my mind. I’d met her long ago and knew her story once. I didn’t want to recall it now, but it surprised me when I realized I’d once been friends with her son Jim, or as I knew him, Jimmy. I blinked. I’d last seen Jim about five years ago. He’d been working in an antique shop on Wailuku, Maui. How could I have forgotten him? I shook my head. Jimmy had seemed so happy in his crowded little store on Main Street. I let out a breath at the memory that I’d paid him ten bucks for a pristine newspaper from the day of Duke Kahanamoku’s 1986 funeral. I still had the newspaper wrapped in the same plastic sleeve Jimmy had given me. We’d talked about books, music, and art and I wondered what had happened to make him murder his best friend.
“You look fo’ Jimmy?” she asked, lowering herself with what looked like great pain onto a rocking chair on the porch.
“I lookin’ for you, aunty.”
“Mando say you come look for me, bumbye.” Bumbye. Local speak for by and by. Why had Mando warned her?
“He tell you he an Jim wen’ bust up?”
I gaped at her. He and Jim had been lovers? How long had that been going on? Slow down, idiot. She means that they had a fight. When? Over what? My thoughts raced. Maybe Mando blamed himself and that was why he’d given Nancy advice and warned her I’d be coming to talk to her. All of this gave me pause, both mental and physical.
I saw it now. The moment she put the suitcase outside with the trash. She loved her son but no longer wanted to be a part of his legal catastrophes. She must have panicked when the suitcase showed up again. With her son in prison she must have worried that there was some other horrible thing he’d done.
It took everything in me to move toward Nancy. I climbed the stairs to her house uninvited, aware of her frightened, watchful gaze. Why was she so scared? Images, recollections, snapshots collided in my mind but nothing came clearly. Just a whole bunch of mental collages cramming my brain under the hot, hard sun.
Suddenly the lyrics of Eddie Vedder’s Hard Sun kicked at me like a mule.
Once I built an ivory tower
So I could worship from above
And when I climbed down to be set free
She took me in again
I sat on the top step, glancing at a pinkish green gecko peering at me from the railing of the low wooden fence surrounding the lanai.
“You been away long time, boy,” Nancy said.
The words hung between us. I had such ambivalent feelings about being here. The thing about Molokai was that it was so bare, so…empty, it forced you to look at yourself. No wonder people turned to drugs. It wasn’t boredom. It was to shadow their pain. I chose to breathe through that pain. To remember how I’d found love for the first time. Sometimes it lasts, sometimes it doesn’t. I’d tried and failed.
“How are you?” I asked Nancy, wondering why it hurt so bad to be here on the Friendly Isle. Mando was right. It wasn’t so friendly. Nancy hadn’t even offered me a glass of water. Hawaiians normally plied visitors with food and drink. Ancient Hawaiians used to throw luaus that went for days.
Nancy wasn’t like any other Hawaiian women I knew. I could read her well. She was silently screaming at me to leave. She didn’t want to think about her murderous son. She didn’t want to hear the secrets of the priest’s suitcase. I opened my mouth but she got the words out firt.
“We pau,” she said. Pau meant finished, done. She got up, wincing as she made her way to her feet. I was in Mando’s car and turning it around before she’d even moved inside her front door. I wasn’t certain but thought she flipped me the bird as I peered up at her front window.
I tried not to feel hurt. She’d lost so much. So many of the living do.
For long moments I focused on getting back to the main road and finding my way to Mando’s mom’s house. She lived on Kamiloloa Place, about a mile from the station. From the street it was hard to see the house thanks to the lush foliage that hid it from view. What Linda Wood lacked in dramatic ocean views was no competition for the sheer warmth and tranquility her home exuded. I parked out front and was thankful when I found her hanging washing on the clothes line inside her packed, vividly colored garden.
“I like getting my vitamin D from my clothes,” she said by way of a greeting.
“Sounds good to me. How are you, Mrs. Wood?”
“You know better than that. Call me Linda. You had lunch yet?”
I shook my head.
“Good. I was getting puckish.” She shoved the last, weathered wooden peg onto a striped navy-and-white T-shirt on a line that stretched across a fragrant bed of herbs. I detected mint and sage on the breeze. Her place was smaller than I remembered. She was smaller, too. I put her at seventy but she looked fantastic. Her brown skin and pepper colored hair cut into a pixie style gave her a girlishness I admired.
“I’ve been busy,” she said, threading an arm through mine. I picked up her laundry basket from the grass and carried it inside. From the entrance, the plantation-style house looked pretty much how I remembered it. Grey exterior paint, white window shutters, and five red stairs from the expanse of grass to the front door. I’d painted those myself.
I suddenly remembered her spare bedroom, too: a hammock on her back lanai. Geez. I really had buried these memories deep. I didn’t particularly want to sleep out in the open, though the weather was mild. I kicked off my shoes, as we did in the islands and padded through the hallway.
“You can leave the basket in there.” She pointed to a small laundry room stuffed with new-looking appliances. I did as I was told and followed her to the kitchen where she pointed to the breakfast table. I took a chair and watched her prepare lunch, which consisted of fresh bread I knew had come from Kanemitsu’s bakery. The writing on the plastic bag said so. She’d chopped up cucumber slices and carrot sticks and pointed to the cream cheese, which came in three flavors, blueberry, strawberry, and cinnamon.
I didn’t wait for further encouragement. I scooped a fat piece of bread onto my plate and scarfed it down once I’d loaded it with a mix of all three cheeses.
Linda kept up a nonstop description of her life since I’d last seen her. I was exhausted just listening to her detailing the boot camp classes she taught to seniors each morning at dawn. “If they don’t show up, I run to their houses and drag ’em out of bed!”
I’d always been a little afraid of her but I admired her spunk and energy. When I thought of Nancy’s crippling inability to walk, I became more impressed with Linda’s attitude. All the while, I ate, and between us we demolished the entire bag of bread. I chomped on a few pieces of cucumber, just to be polite. I also accepted a homemade glass of Molokai Mule, though I should have known better.
Linda rattled on and on about local gossip but she had no information on the priest’s suitcase and I was no closer to solving the unusual matter. As the afternoon went on, I felt bad about Robbie’s fifty-dollar bet. It bothered me less the more I sipped at my drink, relishing the two rums, brandy, bitters, fresh orange and lime juices.
I got hammered fast.
“I really don’t know what to tell you,” Linda said, pouring herself a second cocktail. “Nobody’s told me anything about the suitcase, and it’s weird. Usually people tell me stuff.”
Declining a refill of my own drink, I kept blinking as images flooded my mind.
“You know anyone who goes to St. Basil’s?” I asked.
“I’ve been. Usually a packed house on Sundays. The new priest, Father Joshua, is a kick in the pants. He tells funny stories and invites kids to stand up and sing, tell stories. Say, is that the time? I think I’ll go for a three-mile run.” She sprang up from the table and gestured over my shoulder. “Since you left, we built an add-on. You’ll be sleeping in the guest room, which is no longer under the stars. Oh, and you won’t need a key. I still lock the door. Bye-ee!”
She took off running. The sounds of a small commotion at the door made me feel lazy and even more relaxed. I knew she was putting on her shoes. I left the mess on the table and made my way to the back bedroom. A twin bed, a wing chair, and a chest of drawers took up minimal space in the otherwise unadorned room. The hammock had been moved between two trees outside so I unlocked the sliding glass door at the end of the room and stumbled out to the backyard.
A fragrant breeze floated across my face.
Just a little nap, I told myself. I threw myself into the hammock and rocked back and forth, feeling guilty about my inability to get up and do a damned thing. I’d loved the abundant trails had always helped me think. But sleep did too.
Just a little nap.
My eyes closed in spite of my fury that Linda seemed to have more energy than I did. If I stayed on Molokai I’d sign up for her boot camp, even if I were the youngest person in her group. The smell of burning mangos filled my mind as dreams of Mando took hold, larger than life.
More beautiful than the sun.
We were in Pelekunu, a spectacular valley deep in the heart of Molokai. Emotion tore at me as I recalled the day we’d volunteered to help clean up an abandoned fishpond. Pelekunu was such a steep valley it didn’t get much sunlight and the myriad fruit trees featured offerings in varying stages of decay. The smell was so strong it often burned the eyes and the back of the throat. Pelekunu means burning throat of Pele. And Pele is Hawaii’s enduring volcano goddess. She rules those. Creativity. And love and sex, too.
She must have loved our antics because Mando and I often sneaked into small caves to have our way with one another while everybody else sat in the sunniest spots they could find and guzzled water during our rest breaks.
We found a small, dank cave that smelled so strongly of crushed flowers and fruit it was almost painful to our senses. From outside I heard a barking sound. Not dogs. Deer. Axis deer had lived on the island for years and had learned to bark from dogs. I’d forgotten about that.
Mando moved toward me and I pulled him close, his hard body warmed from the work we’d been doing. I licked along his jaw line and throat, running my tongue up to his lips.
I was in a strange dream state. Half asleep. Half awake. Fully immersed in the memory of those furious kisses we exchanged in that tight, secret cave. Our sighs became mingled, increasingly frantic as I lifted his damp grey T-shirt and moved my hands up to his nipples. I squeezed and his mouth opened in a long gasp.
Fuck, I had to have him.
He reached down and touched my cock through my board shorts, slowly rubbing his palm across the hardness that sprang into his hand as he busted me loose from Velcro snaps.
Mando teased the tip with his fingertips, enticed juices from me. With half-closed eyes I watched him lift his hand to his mouth and lick. I almost came right there and then.
“Wait for me,” he whispered and quickly took off his shorts and underpants. He got down on all fours on the floor of the cave, waving his ass at me. I threw myself behind him, hitching up his T-shirt to lick the glistening sweat from his back down to his crack. I feasted on him like the starving man I was, keeping my tongue moving over his hole.
“Do it,” he chanted in a low voice. “Give it to me quick before somebody finds us.”
“I’m just glad there are no snakes in Hawaii,” I said, stupidly. That made him laugh but he soon stopped as I rubbed my bare cock against his ass.
We’d stopped using condoms because we were a couple and it always thrilled us. My leaking juices lubed him up enough that when I pressed against him, I slid inside him. He kept moving his hips to draw me in deeper and harder. My balls smacked against his ass cheeks and he bit off a low moan.
Voices outside the cave should have stopped us. Instead, they inflamed our need. I fucked him with abandon, holding his hips, gathering to me, wanting to pleasure him as much as he was me. We came together the moment I reached around to hold his shaft.
“Thank God,” he said as he exploded all over my fingers. His ass arched up to me and I drove into him once more…
I awoke to the sound of my cell phone ringing in my pocket. The sun was still high and bright and I swore I could taste Mando’s skin on my tongue. What the hell time is it? I fumbled for the phone and answered it, my throat dry and raspy. “Morales.”
“Hey, Danny, it’s Robbie. We’re wondering if you’re up for an early dinner. Mando and his mom are here and we want you to meet Maggie, our newest addition.”
So, Mando was back from Maui. I wanted to see him. “Sure,” I said. Guilt flushed through me as I set my feet on the ground. I’d slept for two hours, my troubled thoughts mingling with dangerous, enticing ones.
“I’ll text you directions to our home. You won’t find it online. We’re in a new condo complex and our address is still listed as 0 Manila Loop.”
“Gotcha.” I made my way out to the car. I’d left everything in the trunk and checked that the priest’s bag and my laptop were still in there. They were, thankfully, so I slammed the lid down again and got inside the Mustang. I headed to Robbie’s address, about a four mile drive from here. I wound the window down, allowing the wind to knock some sense into me. My mouth tasted weird and I regretted not stopping to buy flowers for my hostess, or even a dog toy for Maggie.
I was no closer to solving the mystery and the nap had left me feeling out of sorts. I arrived at the small, well-manicured complex, which looked incongruous beside the two low-key houses on the street. Large tracts of overgrown weeds populated the rest of the area. I noticed thick mounds of a white flower called beggar’s tick. An introduced plant that was killing off our local plants. Even the trees I spotted were weeds. The pretty red berries and pink flowers of the sprawling octopus trees belied their invasive nature.
Something’s wrong. Very wrong.
I didn’t stop. Something told me to return to the church. I drove quickly and arrived at St. Basil’s seven minutes later. My cell phone rang. It was Mando. A text. I didn’t make it to Maui. Something came up. Get here soon?
I ignored it and parked outside the building. Interior lights told me somebody was inside. I parked, got out and entered the church. It had a curious smell I couldn’t identify. A chemical smell that had a metallic tang to it. A priest stood near the front of the church—what did they call that part of it? The transept. Right. The transept— looking up at the ceiling, his gaze falling to mine.
“Can I help you?” he asked, an unfriendly tone to his voice. With about twenty-four houses of worship competing with one another for the faithful, I’d have thought the priest would welcome a new visitor.
“Father Joshua Tell?” I asked.
He frowned. “Who’s asking?”
Wow. “My name is Danny Morales and I wanted to ask you about Father William —”
“Are you a friend of his?”
A dog whined from somewhere and I glanced around.
The priest looked nervous. “Did you bring a dog in here?”
“No.” What was with this guy? I sniffed. Wet fur. Panting. Was the spirit of Eddie’s dog, Leilani, with me again?
Joshua gave a weird little shake of his head, as though he thought he’d been hearing things. A wet paw stepped on my foot. I glanced down. Nothing.
“You’ll have to excuse me. I was on my way out.” Joshua pointed over my shoulder toward the front entrance. I was surprised that he seemed quite willing to physically shove me out. The metallic smell was strong. Cleaning supplies. That’s what it smelled like.
I left without a word, determined to call the Catholic Church in Honolulu. I knew the bishop there. Maybe file a report on Joshua. I made it back to the car and sat behind the wheel for a long moment.
If I didn’t know better I’d swear I’d smelled the ingredients that went into cooking crystal meth. I took a deep breath. I was imagining things. I started the car, about to back away when the black car I’d seen at the back of the church earlier careened past me, narrowly missing a collision with me. Joshua at the wheel.
I gave him a moment, turned the Mustang around and followed him.
For a man of the cloth he seemed to show little regard for speed laws. Maybe he thought he had God in his pocket. Either way, Joshua drove near fifty and pulled up outside a store called the Friendly Market. Man, they sure pushed the friendly concept a lot on the island these days.
I followed him inside, almost laughing out loud at the sign posted on the doorway about only those who were willing to share aloha were welcome inside. I hoped the priest took note of it. He’d been so surly I had a hard time believing Linda’s assertions that he was a “kick in the pants.”
Keeping a discreet distance from him, I took in the array of household products that on their own might not give the casual observer cause for concern but put together screamed trouble. He loaded several bottles of nail polish remover into a hand basket. To this he added a container of antifreeze. A quick glance over his shoulder and then he returned his focus to the section of the store stocking fishing lines and other nautical supplies. My heart sank when he selected a large bottle of yacht lantern fuel.
Yep. He had a meth lab. Was it inside the church? Man. All that wood! One wrong move and he’d blow up the place.
What am I thinking? He’s a priest.
I took out my cell phone and started texting Mando but Joshua had spotted me. He was checking out eye drops in the personal care aisle so I busied myself in the pet section and picked out a toy for Maggie. It was a squeaky plastic shoe. I sure hoped I wasn’t giving her bad ideas that would encourage her to chomp on her new owners’ footwear.
Pretending I hadn’t noticed Joshua, I moved to the fridge and took out a bunch of mixed flowers for my hostess and walked to the check-out. I had no idea where Joshua was, but his car was still out front. I paid for my stuff and left. Outside, I got into my car and tried to send a text to Mando. No reception. Friendly, my ass.
I drove back to Robbie’s place and parked out front. Mando was waiting for me.
“Did you just text me that the priest is running a meth lab?”
“Yeah. The text went through?”
I shook my head as I moved to the trunk. I wanted to take the priest’s suitcase and my laptop inside. Besides. The vehicle didn’t belong to me.
“I’ll give you a ride back to Mom’s later,” Mando said. “I’m gonna need a search warrant to get inside the church. All the judges I know on Maui will be pau hana by now.”
Yeah. They’d have finished work for the day.
He led me down a plant-laden path. “You sure about the meth lab?”
“Yeah. I’m also pretty certain he’s not a priest. I’ve seen him before. I just can’t place him.”
The eye drops. Why did Joshua Tell need them?
We got to what I assumed was Robbie’s front door and as Mando pushed it open, he said, “Maggie’s an exuberant girl. I warn you she’ll jump.”
“I’m ready.” I shuffled things around in my arms so that her new squeaky toy was in my hand. I pressed on the toy and it made the necessary sounds. As the door opened however, Maggie bounded out. Her eyes shone, but her gaze wasn’t on the toy but the priest’s case. She ran to me, sniffing at it.
Her head went back and she let out a low keening. My eyes filled with tears. She sounded like a child crying. My God. I’d never seen such grief in an animal.
And suddenly, I knew it all.
“What’s happening? What’s going on?” Robbie, Mando, Linda and a woman I assumed was Robbie’s wife, all spoke at once.
“The priest. Father William. He’s dead,” I said. “Maggie was his dog.” I knelt beside the dog who panted and pressed her nose into my neck.
“He’s buried on church property. He’s the one who keeps putting the suitcase everywhere. He wants his death avenged."
“But who killed him?” Mando asked.
“The man masquerading as Joshua Tell is John Kawicki, the man whose girlfriend disappeared at Penguin Bank.”
Mando pulled out his phone. “We need to get to that church.
“Maggie was the priest’s dog,” I said. “Joshua killed him and shelter-dumped Maggie.” I frowned.
“What?” Mando asked, in between muttering to somebody on the other end of his phone for backup.”
“I saw her in a vision with Father William. He found her as a stray in the churchyard. She loved him. She felt her life ended the day he died. That’s why she told me she had no name.”
Robbie and his wife looked at me
“I didn’t go to Maui because my mom met Maggie earlier today and called me. She told me Maggie had been Father William’s dog.”
“Why did Nawicki kill him?” Linda asked.
I shook my head. “I think he saw something. Something that put Nawicki in danger. He moved into the church. Great disguise. He cuts and dyes his hair. Uses color contact lenses. Nobody looked at him too hard. He was a priest.”
“Let’s go,” Mando said.
I got in the car with him, holding onto the priest’s suitcase. I still couldn’t see it all. How he died. I only knew that a lot of people had died or disappeared because of drugs.
When we got to the church, the police fanned out both inside and outside and found Joshua and a couple of his friends cooking drugs. I found the priest’s unmarked grave under a guava bush. Another invasive plant. Just like John Nawicki.
I saw it. His death. Nawicki had run him over at the scene of the accident I’d tuned into earlier. Nawicki had hit a pedestrian and killed him. Father William had witnessed it. With nobody else around, Nawicki deliberately hit and killed the priest.
“I’m sorry you died that way,” I whispered to him. “I will find a priest. A real priest to recite a blessing for you. We’ll make sure you’ll get a proper burial.” I touched the hard, dry earth and felt the priest’s restless spirit around me. A nudge of a wet nose on my hand. I knew it was Leilani, the invisible dog who had been with me on this whole crazy ride.
“Are you talking to the priest?” a voice came from behind me. I turned. It was Robbie.
I nodded. “Can you ask him what Maggie’s name used to be?”
In spite of everything, I smiled. “He called her Girl. He found her here you know. She had puppies. She wants a new name. For a new life. He’s happy she is safe.”
Robbie nodded. He looked away for a moment then glanced back at me. “We’ll call her Maggie Girl. I might have lost the bet but I’m glad I got to meet you.”
I got to my feet. In the distance, I saw Leilani walking with the priest. She was accompanying him to heaven. If Robbie sensed her here, he didn’t say so.
“Joshua Tell, or should I say John Nawicki’s naming names,” he said. “I had no idea such awful things were going on here,” he said.
“Neither did I.”
I walked back around the front of the church, which was now filled with parked cars, looky-loos and I stood, watching all the activity. A coroner’s van pulled up and I was grateful that Father William would no longer be in an unmarked burial site.
Mando came out to me. He gave me a small tight smile and inclined his head. We walked away from the crowd.
“I lost a bet today too,” he said.
“You did? You bet money on me?”
He grimaced. “No. The bet was with myself.”
“Oh? What bet was that?”
“That if I kept myself away from you, if I sent you to stay with Mom, I wouldn’t think about you. Wouldn’t want to… you know, rekindle things.”
I couldn’t stop smiling. He’d lost that bet! “Lucky for me you’re a good loser.”
“Damn you,” he said. “I can’t do this.”
I knew then that he never saw the letter I wrote. Somebody took it. His dad?
“You live in Honolulu. I live here.”
“Not that far away.”
I also knew then that he was single and unattached. Time to stake my claim on this man.
He looked at me, reluctance etched across his features.
“Give me a chance, Mando.” Before he could respond I said, “Give us a chance.”
“I might.” He rolled his eyes. “And just so you know, I’m not a good loser. I’m a sore loser.”
“So am I. So this time, I aim to play for keeps.”
“Prove it,” he said.
I pressed my lips to his left ear and whispered, “Don’t worry. I will.”
TO BE CONTINUED!
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Hot guitar player Angus Mackay learned how to escape unhappiness early in life. The only love he’d ever felt came from his big sister, Debbie. When he learns she is dying, he’s forced to return home and face not only his demons, but hers as well. He must deal with Steven, the lover he left behind, who helped Debbie raise her daughter, Sherry. But Angus is in for a rude shock. Not only must he confront his past, but what could have been his future because Eli Borich, a man he had an amazing one-night stand with, is Steve’s lodger, friend, and employee. Can Angus cope with it all?
Eli had his hopes set on a musical career and a relationship with Angus before they’d even met. Given the chance to play one night in Angus’s band, his hopes rose then fell when Angus split town and didn’t look back. Eli’s musical hopes have died but he senses that Angus isn’t as indifferent as he initially seems. What are the odds that Eli’s luck is about to change for the better.
“Some people go, some people stay. I’m staying.”
Eli had loved those lines when he read S.E. Hinton’s book Tex as a teenager. They resonated with him. Every word of that damned book was his life. Back then, when he was thirteen, he knew he was going to go. But he hadn’t left California. He’d stayed, not that he’d done this intentionally. After his amazing night with Angus, Eli was starting to believe in miracles again.
He hurried to the big, sprawling property in the middle of Concord that he still called home. The tiny attic room in the house owned by Mrs. Damford had been his refuge for eight months. In exchange for mowing the lawn, walking her sweet but ancient dog, Louise, and doing minor repairs on the house, Eli had free rent, and, because she was deaf, got to play his drums all day if he felt like it. Both he and Mrs. Damford thought the arrangement would last longer, but she’d had a visit from her daughter who flew in from Baltimore one weekend, and now the house was sold. Mrs. Damford was moving into what she called “the home for wayward boys and girls.”
The news had been devastating to both Eli and the old lady. But at least she would be allowed to take her beloved Louise with her.
Eli had four more days to find a new abode, but so far had found that mentioning he was a drummer had the same effect as saying, “I’m radioactive pond scum.” Available apartments suddenly became occupied. Right after his gig, he’d find someplace. He had to.
He scaled the front stairs up to the house, alarmed when he found a soft spot near the top. Maybe it was a good thing the house had been sold. Homeowner and dog must have been sleeping, because when he opened the front door, the place was in darkness. He opened some curtains and went to the kitchen. A note lay on the kitchen table written in Mrs. Damford’s shaky, spidery handwriting.
Eli, we’ve gone to the retirement home. My daughter had the electricity cut off early. You’re welcome to stay until Monday. There are candles next to the fridge. Please come visit. Mrs. D. x
With some dismay, he realized he wouldn’t be able to use his laptop and cursed Mrs. Damford’s daughter, who’d sold the house for a small fortune, not caring at all that her mom loved her lifelong home and felt safe in it. Mrs. Damford had lengthy, imaginary conversations with her dead husband in the kitchen and even longer ones with Eli out on the front porch.
He raced to the bathroom and took a quick shower. In his tiny bedroom, he opened the blinds and was relieved to see he still had juice on his cell phone. He accessed the Internet. A fast investigation revealed that Harry Levinson had signed a hot new duo, Hunter Rondeau, to his Halo label after their self-produced single, “Wolfen,” had blown up YouTube and iTunes. The singers were California residents according to their scant online biographies. Did that mean they’d be recording right here in lil ol’ Concord?
Eli shared his last name with Kevin Borich, one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Eli was certain it was a good omen. He even fantasized he’d get to play with the legend himself sometime.
At night, Eli could still believe in the dream and almost hold it in his hands. By daylight, the truth returned. Ugly and hurtful. The really hot bands would never choose him as their drummer, because he wasn’t a big enough name, and the weekend warriors always turned out to be flakier than a bunch of puff pastries. Band members dropped out. Some wouldn’t show up to rehearsal because their girlfriends wanted them to go shopping with them at WalMart. There was always some dopey excuse. Memorial Day weekend barbecues. One guy even said Johnny Appleseed Day was a sacred family vacation.
Eli never thought he’d be the one to stay.
As a kid, he’d longed to be part of the Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps, “one of the best corps out there,” as Harry had pointed out, yet the group maintained its humble origins in Concord. He preferred rock and roll though, and set his sights on a different world stage.
Maybe Levinson was working with a new act. Eli checked his watch. He still had twenty minutes to get to the studio. Plenty of time. He wished he had electricity so he could make a cup of coffee. He was the only guy in the world that liked instant coffee. He could sure use a cup right now. He clicked on the link for the video of “Wolfen.” He worried that he’d be late if he didn’t go over to check on Debbie now, before he headed to the studio.
The video, which had some panache, had been a surprise hit with the two lead singers prowling a night club dance floor howling like wolves. Female dancers writhed around in cages hoisted high above the stage. But what if these weren’t the artists for whom he’d be auditioning? He had four drum kits and had agonized over the decision on which one to take all night. Hard to believe that his best “office” had been stolen four years ago, and he still pined for it. One day, he’d replace the 1964 turquoise sparkle Trixon Speedfire. His parents had given it to him for his twenty-first birthday, and it had been a prized gem even then. He’d looked after the kit, polishing the sparkle portions with a gentle hand. The kit had been notorious for its color fading, but in the five years Eli had owned it, the color on his remained true. The last time he’d looked online, a similar kit had sold for %4,500. And that was with a faded sparkle.
Dad would die if he knew that kit was stolen. I still can’t believe somebody made off with our gig truck with everything but two guitars inside it. It is sacrilegious as well as illegal to steal a band’s gear from a bar mitzvah!
Eli swallowed the welling emotion choking him and chose his small Ludwig Gigster kit with the thirty-four-inch kick. It was an awesome, super-fun office on which to play. He’d bought it from a jazz drummer who’d advised him that the kit was perfect for intimate settings such as jazz clubs. Yes. And recording studios too.
Packing his Ludwigs into the car excited Eli. Made him feel like a real musician again. It had been months since he’d had a paying gig, and that had been an Irish pub band that had hired him to work a St. Patrick’s Day show at the Starry Plough Pub over on Shattuck Avenue. He’d rehearsed the bouncy Celtic tunes with the band for a week beforehand, but somebody should have warned him about Irishmen and their St. Paddy’s tinted beer. Eli got fifty bucks for his efforts, peed green for a week, and never heard from the band again.
Eli drove to the nondescript, gray studio with hope pounding away at his soul. Studying the exterior, he parked the car, then turned off the engine. He gripped the wheel, taking in the well-manicured shrubs and smoky, black glass front doors. It looked like all the other office spaces around it, but lacked the faux cottage-style roofing and latticed windows the others did.
It’s now or never. Just remember. Relax. Don’t overthink things.
As he hoisted his drum kit out of the trunk, the crackle of electricity flowed out to him from behind the glass doors of the studio. Something serious was afoot behind them. Good music. Eli was certain of it. When he walked in, he glimpsed the usual sofas, coffee tables, and easy chairs in the outer room and beyond it, a soundproof room. He spotted a drum kit already set up in it, but his gaze flew to the framed artwork everywhere, which depicted some of the great musicians of the world. Louie Bellson, his favorite drummer of all time, featured in a large black-and-white photo. Eli gulped. His dad had been to this very gig. He’d shown a similar photo to Eli.
Eli blinked. How weird. It seemed to be the exact same photo. No. It can’t be. It had been an unusual gig to be sure, but many serious musicians had been there that day, according to Eli’s dad.
Where is that photo? Dad gave it to me. Somewhere in the house. I need to look for it. He studied the image of an ecstatic-looking Louie Bellson pounding the drums, wowing a roomful of kids at Professional Musicians Local 47 auditorium across the street from Pro Drum in 1964 Los Angeles. The very place Eli’s dad had bought the Trixons. He’d kept them in storage for years, giving them to Eli for his birthday. Now they were gone.
Eli let out a sigh. I’m getting paranoid. Nobody stole that photo from me.
He took a look at his surroundings. The studio oozed money and talent. He would give up a vital organ for the chance to work here.
A.J. Llewellyn is a multi-published author of over 200 M/M erotic romantic novels who was born in Australia, and lives in Los Angeles. An early obsession with Robinson Crusoe led to a lifelong love affair with islands, particularly Hawaii and Easter Island.
Being marooned once on Wedding Cake Island in Australia cured her of a passion for fishing, but led to a plotline for a novel. A.J.’s friends live in fear because even the smallest details of their lives usually wind up in her stories. A.J. has a desire to paint, draw, juggle, work for the FBI, walk a tightrope with an elephant, be a chess champion, a steeplejack, master chef, and a world-class surfer. She can’t do any of these things so she writes about them instead.
A.J. I started life as a journalist and boxing columnist, and still enjoys interrogating, er, interviewing people to find out what makes them ticHow to find/friend me:
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