Here's the latest in Jim's superb Higa and Kanahele series. Enjoy, along with...
Higa and Kanahele sat in a Chinese restaurant in the basement of an aging hotel on Kuhio Avenue. The two HPD detectives sipped tea from porcelain cups decorated with a delicate, swirling dragon motif. The obvious authenticity and age of the Asian artwork that made up the décor clashed with the overall faded and fading look of the establishment. The red, faux leather of their booth was cracked and, off to their right, the long mirror that ran behind the bar was in need of cleaning. Light from a saltwater aquarium as well as the more garish glow from an illuminated sign advertising Tsingtao beer gave the entire place an eerie, almost outré atmosphere. It reminded Higa of something out of an old Fu Manchu novel.
“This place has been here since the ‘70’s, Jake,” Kanahele said quietly to his wiry Japanese-American partner. “I can’t believe I’ve never been in here before. There aren’t many restaurants on the island I haven’t tried.”
Higa smiled and, with the self-discipline that so much defined him, bit back an obvious response that might have wounded the pride of his stocky yet powerfully built friend.
“I can’t believe it’s still here at all, Ray. They’ve been talking about re-developing this area of Waikiki for years. A lot of the old-time businesses on this block in particular have lost their leases. You know the way it goes in the islands, though, it’ll take the developers years to file the right paperwork and get it all together. In the meantime, there are empty buildings and storefronts all along this stretch of Kuhio.”
“Shit,” Kanahele exclaimed, “I just hope they don’t do here what they did over on Lewer’s Street. All the old places with local ties were forced out and replaced by high-end chains. It’s all chrome, steel, glitz and glass now. There’s no character anymore and nothing distinctly Hawaiian either. Never mind the bullshit claims made by the Visitor’s Bureau.”
“Well, I agree with you about the lack of ‘character’ but, you have to admit, it’s a lot easier to police these days. They’ve gotten rid of all the pedicab drivers and pamphlet hawkers. Most of that was just a front for drugs and prostitution. That end of Lewers used to be a real hassle.”
Kanahele thought for a moment before responding. He swirled his tea and pondered the arcane pattern made by the leaves that clung to the sides of his cup. Sounds leaked in from the street above, a bell signaling the approach of the Hilo Hattie Shopping Shuttle or, maybe, the Waikiki Trolley. The pop of hydraulic brakes was followed by the muffled strains of a recorded greeting from TheBus – “Aloha. Welcome aboard Route #8, Ala Moana Center.”
“I guess,” the big man acquiesced. “But, it’s not nearly as much fun. Anyhow, explain to me again what tipped you off to this whole scene.” Kanahele inclined his head to indicate the room in which they sat.
Higa looked around. The only other patrons were a young man and woman sitting on the other side of the room digging into a steaming tureen with dumplings and light broth of some sort. They may well have been newlyweds judging by their lack of sunburn and the starry-eyed, “wonder of you” absorption with which they still regarded one another.
“My doctor. He’s Chinese … hapa actually. Anyhow, he’s been telling me about this place for months. Says it’s one of the best kept secrets on the island. I gather a lot of his patients eat and, maybe, work here. Strange, though, he was downright cryptic when I asked him what I should order. He just said to be sure to ask about their ‘special’ menu, that I’d definitely find something interesting.”
“Well,” Kanahele responded as he poured himself some more tea and munched on a fried noodle, “If the food’s any good I’ll have to bring Maile sometime. You know how much she loves Chinese. Maybe on a weekend when she’s off. We can check out a “Sunset on the Beach” movie or maybe that star-gazing thing they do over at the Zoo. I don’t get back into Waikiki much once my shift’s over but she’d be here all the time if she had her way.”
Once again, Jake Higa stifled his reply. His partner’s imposing physical presence notwithstanding, there was little doubt about who generally “got their way” in the Kanahele household. Even so, Ray and his long-suffering wife were the most devoted couple Higa had ever known. To hear his partner tell it, however, Maile was forever on the lookout for a way to cash in on her husband’s life insurance or social security. Having worked with Ray now for just over a decade, he had to admit that there might well be a grain of truth in the big man’s suspicions.
As the two men were talking, an older Asian man in the worn black livery of a waiter appeared at the side of their table. Higa caught a whiff of cigarette smoke and the even stronger scent of grill or fried oil from the man’s clothing. His face was slightly pockmarked and he was sorely in need of dental work. Kanahele had to stop himself from staring at the patch that covered the server’s left eye.
The detectives were perhaps even more startled by the man’s cultured, nearly flawless English. A British school in Hong Kong, Higa speculated to himself.
“Can I interest you gentlemen in an appetizer? A spring roll perhaps? I should also mention that brown rice or Thai sticky rice are available with your entrées for an additional charge.”
Higa closed the compendious folio that had been lying near his place-setting when he sat down.
“No. I don’t think we want an appetizer, but could we have a look at your special menu before we decide what we’d like for our meal?”
An expression of concern, suspicion even, clouded the waiter’s distinctive features momentarily before he regained his professional demeanor.
“Our special menu? Of course. I’ll be right back.”
Higa and Kanahele looked at one another as the waiter turned and headed toward the back of the restaurant.
“Son-of-a-bitch, Jake,” Kanahele said quietly as he leaned closer to his partner. “What the hell was that look? Not only are we being waited on by Quasimodo but the dude gets all ‘weirded’ out when you ask to see the specials. What, did he make us for cops or something?”
“I don’t think so, Ray. He definitely had a reaction but it wasn’t that. Something’s up but I’m not sure what. We’ll just have to play this one out, see where it takes us. I’m beginning to think that Dr. Li set me up here somehow.”
“No kidding,” Kanahele quipped has he grabbed another noodle, “I’m not so sure about your doctor’s taste in food. Look around you. For a place that’s supposed to be ‘ono, there’s hardly anyone in the joint. Shit. For your sake I’m also hoping Dr. Li’s not the one who fixed our waiter’s eye or treated him for his skin problem.”
Higa and Kanahele sat in silence for a few moments before their waiter returned.
“If you two gentlemen would follow me please.”
Kanahele was about to object but Higa stopped him with a glance.
The policemen slid out of their booth and followed the waiter through the dining area and out into the bar. The bartender was cleaning glassware as they passed. He glanced at them quickly then returned to his work with studied nonchalance.
They turned left at the far end of the bar and entered a short hallway that ended at a door marked ‘Office’. The waiter knocked then turned the knob and stood aside so that Higa and Kanahele could enter. The door shut behind them.
The room in which they stood was remarkable. Chinese pottery of great antiquity was displayed tastefully on shelves and in wooden cases. The walls were adorned with exquisite calligraphy. Even more remarkable, however, was the large Chinese man in an impeccably tailored linen suit who sat behind an enormous teak desk inlaid with ivory.
Higa changed his mind. This, whatever it was, was now more Charlie Chan than Fu Manchu.
“Have a seat, my friends.” Their host indicated two high-backed chairs that fronted his desk. The muted strains of a bamboo flute wafted gently from speakers hidden somewhere in the room.
“Well now,” the man continued in the same cultured tones as their erstwhile waiter. “Since you’ve made it this far I can safely assume that you’ve been vetted properly by my assistant. So, then, I can further assume that either one or both of you are in need of money.”
“That would be me,” Kanahele offered with a glance at Higa.
“And might I ask what has brought you to your current straits?”
“Gambling,” the big Hawaiian responded. Higa was momentarily taken aback by his friend’s sudden ability to improvise, to make it up as they went along.
“I see. And how much are you, um, in the hole for? I believe that’s the proper expression.”
“Very well. Here’s the ‘menu’ you requested.” With surprisingly small hands, the Chinese man pushed a printed page across the desk toward Kanahele. “If I might be so bold, I’d suggest that item #5 might serve your current level of need and adequately cover our fees as well.”
Kanahele glanced at the paper and then passed it to Higa.
“Yeah,” Kanahele agreed as he accepted the sheet back from his partner. “Item #5 it is, then. Why’s there such a range in the money?”
“You must understand. In our business there’s obviously no outside regulation. It’s purely market driven and it all depends on where we can locate a buyer. At the present time, for example, the price for what you are offering ranges from, say, $30,000 in China to maybe $80,000 in India. That’s US dollars of course. There’s no paperwork and no ‘contract’ to speak of. We must therefore rely on mutual trust. Can you agree to such terms?”
“Shit. I don’t have a choice. I need the money and I need it fast.”
“Precisely my point.” The seated man smiled as he steepled his hands on the desk in front of him. “I’ll make the necessary arrangements with due haste. If you’d provide me with contact information, I’ll be in touch as soon as everything’s ready. There’s nothing whatsoever to worry about. The removal of a kidney is simple matter these days and, after all, you have two to start with.”
Kanahele went to the back pocket of his chinos as if reaching for his wallet and a business card. He emerged with a gold detective’s shield instead. As soon as the well-dressed man behind the desk processed what he was seeing, his right hand shot toward a drawer. In the blink of an eye, Higa was behind the desk. He slammed the drawer shut on the man’s hand and, presumably, a gun.
“Hey,” Kanahele began with a twinkle in his eye. The Hawaiian policeman’s own service revolver was now pointed at the grimacing Chinaman’s chest. “Game’s over ‘brah. Lose with dignity. By the way, what’s the going rate these days for hands? Look’s like you might need one. Good thing you have two, huh!”
Hours later, Higa and Kanahele emerged on the street. As was generally the case in the late afternoon, the setting sun was wrapping the sere southwestern flank of Diamond Head in a warm embrace of goodbye. In addition to the normal throng of buses, taxis and pedestrians, Kuhio Avenue was now also awash in a sea of HPD patrol cars and unmarked vehicles from a bewildering variety of government and law enforcement agencies. The normally imperturbable Higa looked worried as the two tired men cut down a side street to where they had parked their own car about a block from the Ala Wai Canal.
“What a multijurisdictional nightmare this whole thing has turned into, Ray. It’s going to take days to do all the paperwork and interface with all the relevant agencies.”
“Yeah. It’s the ‘Feds that bother me. They’re such pricks. Anyhow, what really pisses me off is the fact that I never got to have my General Tso’s Chicken. I was really looking forward to that. Make sure you thank your Dr, Li for me, OK?”
Higa stopped and turned toward his partner.
“The way I figure it is this. Dr. Li must have known what was going on in that place. I mean, it’s common knowledge that there’s a robust trade in human organs in Asia. I just didn’t realize there was a ‘branch office’ right here in Hawaii. Li must have been treating people for mysterious post-operative infections. Eventually he put it all together. Anyhow, he found a way to tip me off without involving himself directly.”
The two detectives continued walking. As they approached their vehicle, it was Kanahele’s turn to look worried.
“Damn. I just thought of something else.” Higa paused again, expectant. Kanahele delivered the inevitable punch line. “When Maile hears about all of this, she’ll want to auction me off on EBay … piece-by-piece.”
James C. Clar's short fiction has been published in places like Flashshot, The Taj Mahal Review, Golden Visions Magazine, Apollo's Lyre, Word Catalyst Magazine, Everyday Fiction, Long Story, Short, Antipodean SF and the Magazine of Crime & Suspense. Stories featuring HPD Detectives Jake Higa and Ray Kanahele have appeared previously here on Thrillers Killers 'n' Chillers as well as on A Twist of Noir and Powder Burn Flash.