Jenny Williams sucked in a lungful of smoke. Her eyes followed the woman down the front walk, but her thoughts were still on Tanner. His hands had been steady because he wasn’t taking his medicine. Which was also why his eyes wouldn’t meet hers. And the damned fool told her he had himself under control. Yeah, yeah. She’d heard that story for the past ten years.
His intelligence was an electrical short circuit that could fry them both. Too bad he wasn’t in a downswing; he was so much easier to deal with when he hated himself. Angry tears stung Jenny’s eyes. His illness was a curse, and everyone he came in contact with suffered from it. He might not like to take the drugs because they slowed his mind down, made him gain weight, even made his hands shake, but he was lolo without it. Looney Tunes.
The depressions were easier to handle than his manic swings. Hyper, he was like a meth head, twitching and buzzing with confidence and crazy ideas that peaked, then tapered into paranoia. Not only did he rearrange magazines, books, napkins, eating utensils, or anything else in the house so that lines only he saw were parallel (or at right angles, whatever his obsession that day), he often answered the people in his head before he responded to the ones who stood right in front of him. The invisible conversationalists were former professors and folks he’d admired over the last decade or so and still guided his life. Forget about the wife and kid.
Jenny set her jaw. She’d known when she went to answer the woman’s knock, he’d slip out the back door. No way he would stand still long enough to wait. Well, good riddance.
Part of her was a little worried he’d think up some reason to barge back in. Not even a stranger would inhibit him when he was hyped, and there was no way she could keep up with the intricacies of his arguments. Such a sad goddammed waste. All she could do was shut him down. If he’d stayed one more second, they would have had a full-on screamathon. Again.
She heard a soft noise behind her and shouted, with a quick glance over her shoulder, “Get back in your room.” She knew it wasn’t Tanner because he wouldn’t creep, he’d blow in like a tropical storm. Knock over a few things on the way.
At the door, Jenny’s voice broke. She cleared it, then coughed a few times. Maybe the visitor would think she was fighting a cold. Right. Still, it wouldn’t help to show any weakness, or any distress. The woman was an old high school friend of Tanner’s, after all. And God knew giving other people a view of her troubles hadn’t done her any good in the past and wasn’t about to now.
The woman, a Honolulu attorney, seemed nice enough, and asked how well Jenny knew Lambert Poele and Brock Liu. Jenny was happy to relate that Brock was mostly an asshole with some redeeming qualities and Lambert was a recluse who was hardly ever seen. She hoped Liu was the one in trouble. She figured someone was if a lawyer was asking around, and Brock wasn’t very popular around here.
The part about Poele was only a tiny fib, and that by omission. She’d seen him a few days ago for the first time in a while. A smile loosened the grim set of her lips. If she hadn’t been so mad at Tanner, she would have blushed at the memory.
Jenny watched the visitor drive away, and turned to the beer she’d left on the coffee table. It had been hard to get past the anguish over Tanner’s visit and talk to the woman. Christ, these encounters sucked the energy out of her worse than night shift at the hospital. She drained the long-neck and listened for Luke.
If he’d been peeking down the hall a few minutes ago, he’d been smart enough to lie low. “Luke?” she called.
No answer. She wandered into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. She needed another beer. “Luke?” she yelled again as she popped the top. “We need to talk.”
# # #
Storm Kayama looked good, really good. She had the same dark, liquid eyes that he’d always admired, but her solid athletic frame had an ease she hadn’t shown in high school. Fifteen years ago Storm had been a pissed-off sixteen-year-old with spiked purple hair. Now strands of her shoulder-length mahogany hair escaped from her thick French braid and wisped softly around her high, wide cheekbones. She tucked one lock, then another, behind her ears, only to have them work free during the conversation with Jenny. Her voice was soft and low and the big brown eyes he remembered met Jenny’s with humor and empathy.
He tore at a hangnail and thought back on himself in those days. A skinny high school senior with acne and no friends. He’d been on the verge of his disease then, and his family doctor, the over-worked family practitioner in Kaunakakai, was the only medical person who believed him. Everyone else thought he was stressing over school work, his perfectionism, the drive to go to a good college on the mainland. Whatever it was, the other students picked on him like a pack of mynahs shredding a ripe mango.
Except for Storm, who actually talked and listened to him. She, too, was a misfit. Rumors drifted behind her like smoke. They said someone powerful had kept her from getting shipped off to the Hawai‘i Youth Correctional Facility. A big time Honolulu lawyer, with the clout to get her out of Pa‘auilo and the trouble brewing there, took her into his family in the Hawaiian way, made her a hanai daughter. The black leather jacket she wore like a uniform only confirmed her bad-girl persona. No one picked fights with her. They left her alone, and she acted like that was just fine.
Tanner had tutored Storm in her sophomore biology class. When she arrived on O‘ahu, she didn’t have much background in the sciences and was at a disadvantage at the new school. But he detected aptitude, a quick mind, and a toughness he admired. Some of the students at their exclusive school were cruel manipulators, and he’d seen her face them down on a number of occasions. One time, she did it for him.
And here she was, taller, smoother, and a lot more peaceful.
Tanner would have liked to tune out and let his mind wander, especially with the pleasant distraction of watching his old friend Storm make her way up the front walk. He did that sometimes—kind of like staying underwater. But Jenny, with her back to the door, kept poking and punching his arms and chest while she alternated between pleading with him to take his medications and blasting a gut-twisting inventory of how he’d screwed up, how he’d ruined Luke’s life and hers.
Right then he wished he could hold Jenny underwater. She’d played the Luke card again, and he couldn’t ignore the palpable stab of guilt. My son, he thought, the last remaining love of my life, is the weapon she uses to bludgeon me. He’s her silver stake. She wants to pound every one of my failures into the atomic structure of my cells, the submolecular tangle of every neuron and dendrite snaking through my nervous system. She likes to see me twitch.
But he wouldn’t let her. Take a deep breath, he told himself. Let the electricity run through your body to your fingers and out into the universe, away from your fractured mind. Look at something tranquil. Storm, who now stood at the door, would do. Though he saw her wince at the sound of their angry voices.
Tanner backed up. Coming on an impulse had been a big mistake. He should have stopped by Skelly’s first and asked his friend to give him another haircut. He’d had one last week, but maybe another would have smoothed his rough edges. He also might have borrowed a razor, and scraped the afternoon shadow from his chin.
Hell, Jenny would have ranted anyway. She didn’t notice his efforts any more. All the resentment she carried around had stained the sunny glow of compassion that had once been part of her. And, he admitted, some of that was his fault. But her bitterness was taking its toll on all of them, especially Luke.
Storm had decided to go ahead and knock on the door, which distracted Jenny, thank God. When his ex wheeled away, Tanner lingered a couple seconds longer to get another look at this woman from his past, whom he still counted among his friends.
Right then Luke peered around the corner with an expression of pain on his face that sent a surge of remorse and anger coursing through Tanner. The dark circles under the boy’s eyes nearly tore him in half.
Luke was the reason he’d gone there in the first place. Tanner tiptoed to his son, ruffled his hair, and whispered that he would help him. Then he slipped out the back door.
He could still hear Jenny’s fake cordiality as he crossed through the banana trees bordering the back property line. His property line. His house, for what it was worth. The trees were overgrown, and their heavy leaves and ponderous flowers still dripped with last night’s rainfall. He could stand there without being seen.
He couldn’t see Jenny, but her voice sliced the still air. What had happened to her, to them? When had her blue eyes flattened to veined granite, her voice changed from a lover’s caress to a shrill buzz of destruction? When had her golden hair turned to straw and her willowy stature toughened to sinews of decay?
She would poison Luke. Contaminate him with the venom of her bitterness and desperation. He was still an innocent, like others Tanner had known who’d been destroyed at a young age. But he shoved those memories aside quickly.
Moloka‘i can be a rough place; few live here in the style of a university professor or business executive. That kind of job rarely exists on this island, which was why Jenny stewed in her misery. She couldn’t see that people could be happy and comfortable if they supported each another, when they relished the crystal seas, the embrace of soft breezes, and the fertile bounty of the earth. Jenny couldn’t see past the size of a paycheck and a job with status.
Luke was the best part of Tanner’s life, the most important accomplishment of his thirty-three years. He had to do something to mitigate his estranged wife’s fury and preserve his son’s still unspoiled outlook. Out there under the trees, Tanner’s eyes burned and his throat ached. He needed to find a way to prevent Luke from being caught in the same crossfire of hatred and rancor he’d seen ten years ago.
The brisk trade winds nearly tore the duffel out of Storm’s hand. She preceded her partner and lover, Ian Hamlin, down the steps from the thirty-passenger Turbo-prop—Moloka‘i Airport didn’t bother with jet ways—and looked back at him. “Did you actually meet this guy?”
“Briefly,” Hamlin said, and jammed a cowboy hat over his sandy hair. It looked good with his bushy moustache. “He didn’t say much. His assistant does most of the talking.”
“But he’s paying you a retainer to look into this.”
“Sure. He may have a legitimate negligence suit if Hawai‘i EcoTours didn’t warn his son of dangerous water conditions, or if the equipment was defective.”
“How will you find out?”
“We know Brock went out two weeks ago because we’ve got a charge on his credit card for March 26th. The morning was calm, but the surf had risen considerably by early afternoon.”
“How old is he?” “Twenty-six.” “Pretty young.”
“Old enough to be an executive at Pacific Shipping and Transport. He also sits on the board. Missed a board meeting for the first time ten days ago.”
Storm squinted at him. “He grew up in the islands, didn’t he? He’d know how treacherous the ocean on those unprotected shores can be.”
“I’ve still got to check it out.” Hamlin looked away from her. “Brock is Liu’s only son. Devon Liu is pushing eighty and looks like he’s aged a decade in the last two weeks. Plus, he’s not an easy man to ignore.”
“I see.” Storm didn’t want to argue. They’d had disagreements before about personal injury suits and had different points of view on the topic. Hamlin was more ambitious in terms of his client list and their connections. Storm maintained that she didn’t want her job, and her life, to revolve around social connections and the size of her paycheck. She also wanted her vocation to be about good will, and didn’t hesitate to point out to Hamlin that it was working; she’d made enough money on her last case not only to pay her share of office expenses, but to put a generous hunk into an IRA.
Tanner Williams’ phone call had been a surprise, a voice from the past. The last time she’d seen him, he’d saved her from a dismal science grade. That was the year she’d transferred to O‘ahu from the Big Island, a lonely, displaced sixteen-year-old.
Though they’d never discussed it, she’d known that Tanner had his own struggles. He was a year older than the other seniors. According to rumor, he repeated his junior year because of health problems and was monitored by a doctor on his home island of Moloka‘i. Students whispered that none of the Honolulu specialists had found anything wrong with him. He was just mental.
Tanner never discussed personal issues, and he rarely sought the company of other students. But he’d been honest, kind, and smarter than anyone else in the school, including a lot of the teachers. He’d given Storm support when she needed it, and now she would do the same for him.
Not that she needed much of an excuse to come to Moloka‘i, especially when Uncle Keone and Aunt Maile were going to be there. They didn’t often leave Parker Ranch, on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, where Uncle Keone was one of the long-time paniolo and a ranch foreman.
Hamlin caught up to Storm and gently touched her arm. Storm could tell he knew he’d touched on a sensitive area and wanted to change the subject before it grew into a dispute. They needed this long weekend to linger over wine-soaked, unhurried dinners and breathe deeply of the peace that was Moloka‘i. They needed long walks under the stars, cuddling before the cozy fireplace of the Lodge, and retiring to the sophisticated and cozy cabin-style rooms.
“Devon Liu’s situation is sad, that’s for sure,” Storm said, to put the difference behind them. She was glad to be distracted by the sight of a bandy-legged, cowboy-hatted figure who stood by the low platform that passed for a baggage claim, just inside the chain link fence.
“Uncle Keone,” she shouted, and dashed toward him.
The man, whose skin was darkened by the weather to a leathery mahogany, wrapped his arms around her. “Hey, honey girl. It’s been way too long.”
“That’s cuz you won’t leave the Big Island and come to Honolulu,” Storm teased.
“Not. We just been plenny busy lately, clipping calves and training colts. I been meaning to come see Dusty Rodriguez for months. When Maile and I found out you’d be here, nothing would keep us away.” The lines around Keone’s eyes radiated like the warmth of the sun. “Plus, get chance to pick out some good cutting horses. Dusty got the best.”
“He gets his cattle from Parker Ranch, doesn’t he? We once helped him round them up and load them on the barge.”
“Sure enough.” Keone sighed. “That was quite a few years ago, back when your daddy was still alive.”
Hamlin caught up to Storm and Keone. “Keone, it’s great to see you. How’s life on the Big Island?”
“It’s good,” Keone said and grabbed Hamlin in a hug. “But it’d be better if we saw more of you two.”
Storm linked her arm with Keone’s. “When can we see the horses?”
“Soon,” Keone said, and gave Hamlin a wink. “Depends on what else you need to do.”
“I need to make a run into Kaunakakai, but other than that, I’m going to relax,” Storm said.
“From what I hear, you need a vacation.”
“I’m fine,” Storm said, but her smiled disappeared as she took in the glance that passed between Hamlin and Keone. “I wasn’t hurt in that cave, just scared.”
“You were damn lucky not to end up drowned like those surfers,” Hamlin said.
Keone put his arm around Storm’s shoulders. “Let’s just thank our lucky stars that you and Aunt Maile’s ‘aumakua got the job done.” Storm’s hand went to the little gold pig she wore on a chain around her neck. Aunt Maile was not only a registered nurse, she was a kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au, or native healer, and believed deeply in the ancient Hawaiian traditions. She’d sent the necklace, their shared family totem, to Storm during her last case. The emerald-eyed charm had been a gift for Storm’s thirtieth birthday, and Maile’s timing with its arrival had been prescient.
The case, though Storm would never admit it, had left a thread or two of silver in her dark hair.
“Where is she?” she asked.
“Out gathering limu before the tide comes up. She’ll meet us at the ranch.”
“What’s the medicinal use for limu?” Hamlin asked.
“All kinds of things.” Keone grinned. “But mostly it makes me happy, especially when the chef has fresh ahi tuna coming in. He and Maile are in cahoots. They going make one fresh poke to have with our beer, um, cocktails tonight.”
“Yum,” Storm said, conjuring pictures of her aunt in the kitchen with the chef, adding the fresh seaweed, ground kukui nut, and other seasonings to the raw fish dish.
A golf cart pulling a trailer piled with bags drew parallel to the baggage claim counter. No mechanized, hidden workers or conveyor belts here; bags got piled on and off by hand and in one sweep.
“Dusty’s out front,” Keone said, and pointed to a white van with the Moloka‘i Ranch logo printed across the side. Like most things on the island, the vehicle was covered with a layer of red dirt.
Storm remembered Dusty from his visit to Parker Ranch because at fifteen, she’d thought he was hot. Especially for an old guy. Now she realized he’d been around thirty, or her present age. But he’d seemed so different than Uncle Keone, who’d essentially raised her, and the other men she knew. Keone may have been a father figure, but Dusty definitely wasn’t. He’d been sort of an unattainable movie-idol type, like that Magnum P.I. actor Tom Selleck, though she would have swallowed her tongue before she told anyone.
One day, Storm rounded a corner of a barn and saw him leaning into a woman, one hand on the wall behind her and one inside her blouse. The woman, a pretty brunette named Darlene, was fast closing the gap between them. Storm had whirled on the heel of her boot and scooted back around the barn, her face burning with embarrassment.
A few days later, she’d overheard Aunt Maile whispering to Keone, who chuckled. “Guess he hasn’t grown up yet.”
Maile made a snorting noise, kind of like a horse when you tighten a girth too quickly. Storm knew that noise; the last time she’d heard it was when she got caught playing hooky with Howie DeSilva and had to spend an entire weekend weeding Aunt Maile’s herb garden.
Storm regarded Dusty’s approach with interest. He was still over six feet tall, and broad shouldered with thick black hair shot with gray, but his eyes had changed. His gaze was direct, not flirtatious, and conveyed a touch of sorrow.
His quick grin erased any sadness Storm thought she’d seen and he grabbed her in a jovial hug. “More beautiful than ever,” he said, and Storm was glad her blushing cheeks faced away from Hamlin and Keone.
Dusty, oblivious, released her and grasped Hamlin’s hand. “Great to meet you.” He grabbed their bags. “You two travel light.”
Storm and Hamlin were the only passengers in the van, so they sat on the bench behind the driver’s seat. Keone rode shotgun to Dusty, who asked Hamlin if he’d ever been to Moloka‘i.
“This is my first time. Storm’s told me about it, though. She loves coming here.”
“How long since you been here?” Dusty asked Storm. He regarded her in the rear-view mirror. “I haven’t seen you since the Big Island.”
“That was a long time ago. I was here with friends about ten years ago, right after the fire on Moloka‘i Ranch.”
“A brush fire?” Hamlin asked.
“If only,” Dusty said. He turned left onto the highway, a winding picturesque two-lane road that led east, through grazing lands and fallow fields toward the town of Maunaloa and Moloka‘i Ranch. There was a long pause before he continued. “Someone burned down the ranch owner’s home one night.
Those were hard times.” The corners of his mouth turned down at the memory.
“Are people more accepting of the ranch’s presence these days?” Storm asked.
“I think so.” Dusty shrugged. “But it might be that we’re all getting older. Ten years ago, there was a lot of friction. Seemed like the ranch owners were just here to make money, wouldn’t pay any heed to the people who call this place home.” The sadness returned to his eyes. “People lost their favorite fishing spots, couldn’t get to the old Maunaloa cemetery to visit their families’ graves. They felt betrayed.”
He pointed to a sign that greeted visitors leaving Moloka‘i Airport.
SLOW DOWN THIS IS MOLOKA‘I
“We want to keep the lifestyle here. The population’s only about seventy-five hundred people and half of ’em are related.
Still no traffic lights, you know? But it’s hard, and maybe not realistic all the time. We can’t close ourselves off from the rest of the world. We talk more now, have meetings.”
“How did the land owners and the local people get so far apart in their points of view?” Hamlin asked.
Dusty took a deep breath before he answered. “My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that big land owners and locals, they have different perspectives. In the old days, land was the source of life for the Hawaiians. They didn’t have a western concept of land ownership.”
“Like Native Americans on the mainland?”
“Similar.” Dusty’s expression became thoughtful again. “We all know it’s hard to get people to accept change, and who knows how much to accept. But if we’re going to survive as a culture, we need jobs. Moloka‘i’s unemployment is the highest in the state.” He looked briefly into the back seat at Hamlin and Storm. “What’s the rate in Honolulu?”
“Things are good right now. It’s under ten percent,” said Hamlin.
“It’s twenty, thirty percent here. We need work, but just when we think we can trust a big land owner to give us fair jobs and still honor our lifestyle, you get someone like that software guy, McAfee, who begged to buy a big wedge of land from an old family, then auctioned it to the highest bidder.” Dusty shook his head with disgust.
Hamlin had been staring out the side window. “I can understand people’s reluctance to give up their land, but violence just antagonizes people. That protest ten years ago—didn’t someone die?”
Dusty didn’t answer for a second or two, and Storm saw his shoulders rise and fall with a deep breath. “Yup. Those were bad times.” He seemed to settle himself deeper in the driver’s seat.
A few uncomfortable seconds passed before Keone spoke. “Storm, you been riding much since you moved to the city?”
“No, and I miss it. I guess I could go to Waimanalo, but I haven’t had the time lately.”
“Dusty’s got a roundup tomorrow.”
Dusty perked up. “She’s good, you know,” he said to Hamlin. “Won a coupla trophies for barrel racing back in her teens.”
Hamlin’s eyebrows shot up and he looked at her. “She never told me.”
Storm shrugged in embarrassment and poked Uncle Keone in the shoulder. “Tell him the real story.”
Keone chuckled. “How old were you? Thirteen? You’d been training Butterfly for weeks, getting ready.”
Storm turned to Hamlin. “Butterfly was my mare. Best horse in the world. We’d been looking forward to the all-state rodeo for months. The best paniolo in the islands compete there. Butterfly could feel my nervousness, and she wanted to do a good job for me. When I let her go at the gun, she jumped out so fast, I lost my seat and bounced over the back of the saddle. All I could do was flop around and hold on to the saddle strings. The reins were flying behind and I didn’t even have my feet in the stirrups.”
Keone and Dusty were laughing out loud. “And she won.” “Butterfly won. I had nothing to do with it.”
“People thought it was an act. You should have heard the applause,” Keone added. “But when the announcer called Storm’s name, a silence fell over the crowd cuz nobody believed the race was for real. And Storm walked right up to the microphone, grabbed it, and proclaimed that her horse had won the race. She stuck a carrot—you had those in your pocket the whole time, right?—in the big silver cup and let Butterfly work it out with her lips. The audience loved it.”
Hamlin grinned at Storm and her discomfort. She rolled her eyes at him, then caught sight of a hand-lettered sign by the side of the road. A‘ole La‘au and right under it, Momi’s Organic Foods, 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“Is that one of the meetings you were talking about?” Storm asked, trying to change the subject.
“What’s a‘ole’? Hamlin asked.
“Means ‘never,’” Dusty said. “As in ‘never develop La‘au Point.’ And that’s a meeting, all right. Activism isn’t dead and gone, just more stable.”
“Same people who were protesting ten years ago?” Hamlin asked.
“Some of ’em. A few, like Lambert Peole, dropped out. I hardly ever see him, though I heard a rumor he’s been calling on a woman in Kaunakakai. Jenny Williams, a nice gal with a real smart kid.” A note of regret seemed to linger in Dusty’s voice.
Storm didn’t dwell on that, because the name caught her attention. Jenny Williams was Tanner Williams’ ex.
“Lambert Poele was the leader of the protest group back in the nineties. He got arrested for the fire, right?” she asked.
“They let him go. No evidence against him, just hearsay. He was the only suspect without a good alibi.”
“Was anyone else arrested?” Hamlin asked.
“Nope. Tanner Williams and Skelly Richards were with women that night and Connor’s mother said he was home with pinkeye.”
Interesting detail for Dusty to remember, Storm thought, and almost missed Hamlin’s next question.
“Skelly Richards. Isn’t he the guy that owns Hawai‘i EcoTours?” Hamlin asked.
“Yeah,” Dusty said, and pulled into the drive leading to the Lodge, a rustic yet sophisticated structure with spectacular views in all directions. “He’s had his troubles, too. Got into using meth for a while, but he’s gone to NA for a decade and he’s had his little business almost as long.”
Storm stole a sidelong glance at Hamlin. This was the guy Devon Liu, owner and CEO of the mega-business Pacific Shipping and Transport, wanted to sue for millions. She wasn’t sure, but Hamlin might have slouched a bit in his seat.
“You ever meet a guy named Brock Liu?” she asked.
Dusty hopped out of the driver’s seat and opened the van’s sliding door. “Sure, he stayed here a few weeks ago. Had a fancy room and ordered a lot of room service.” He shrugged at Storm’s inquisitive look. “He had a girlfriend, from what I hear.”
“That the heavy-handed guy your appaloosa gelding dumped?” Keone asked. “I think I saw him the weekend I was here checking out your brood mare.”
“The same,” Dusty said.
“Thought so.” Keone grinned and turned to Storm. “Why you asking?”
Hamlin answered. “He may have disappeared in a kayak accident.”
“Here on Moloka‘i?” Dusty asked.
“He rented a kayak from Hawai‘i EcoTours and never came back.”
Dusty screwed up his face. “I carried his bags to the car the morning he left and could have sworn he said he was heading for the airport.”
“You know what day that was?” Hamlin asked.
“Not offhand, but we can find out from the hotel registration desk,” Dusty said.
“Did you drive him?”
“No, he had his own SUV. Musta had it shipped over, cuz nobody rents them here. Dollar and Budget are the only car rental places, and they don’t want people going off road. Too dangerous. Landslides, flash floods, private land and all.”
“Maybe he borrowed it from a friend.”
Dusty looked doubtful. “It had Honolulu plates.”
Dusty took Storm’s and Hamlin’s duffel bags and put them on a waiting cart. “He got sort of friendly with one of our cow-hands. Let’s get you checked in, and we’ll head to the stables. We’ve got a mare about to deliver and Makani will be there. You can ask him.”
“We’ll meet you at the stables,” Keone said. Hamlin nodded his agreement.
Storm kept her mouth closed. She’d meet them, but later. She couldn’t help feeling Dusty knew more about Brock Liu than he let on. He knew Skelly Richards and his personal history, he knew about Lambert Poele’s love life and the rumor that Brock had a girlfriend. The coconut wireless worked faster than electricity on this island, so why hadn’t he heard where Brock had gone? And where was that conspicuous SUV?