'Mele Kalikimaka' to all with this Christmas themed Higa and Kanahele tale...
What Partners Are For
HPD detective Ray Kanahele sat on a bench in front of Leonard’s Bakery on Kapahulu Avenue. He popped the last of a warm, cinnamon malasada into his mouth and sighed contentedly. He wiped sugar and oil from his fingers with a napkin and picked up the slim stack of papers that lay clipped together on the seat next to him. He squinted up in the late morning Hawaiian sun and looked at his wiry partner, Jake Higa, who stood on the walkway a few feet to his right. The health-conscious Higa was unobtrusively running through what he referred to as a “micro-stretch-break.” The Japanese-American detective was rolling his shoulders, bending at the knees and waist and turning his head slowly from left to right.
“You ever try this shit, Jake?” Kanahele asked as he shuffled a paper to the top of his pile. He pointed a beefy finger at the image of a beer coaster featuring the black-ink figure of a tiger against an orange background. The animal stood beneath a stylized date-palm.
“I’ve had it a few times,” Kanahele continued before Higa could answer. “Tastes like tiger-piss.”
Higa straightened up and smiled. It hadn’t taken the detectives long to determine that the logo in question was that of a cheap beer made in Singapore called Tiger Gold Medal. Still, it was Tuesday and four full days had passed since the aforementioned coaster was discovered in the back pocket of the jeans worn by a ‘Jane Doe’ whose body had been discovered on the bank of the Manoa-Palolo drainage canal out where it ran beneath the bridge on Date Street behind the Ala Wai Golf Course. So far, there wasn’t a shred of helpful forensic evidence. Blunt force trauma was about all the M.E. had to offer. As Kanahele had said, “like we needed her to tell us that!”
Additional lab reports also determined that the woman, who looked to be in her mid-thirties, hadn’t been sexually assaulted. Other than the Tiger Gold Medal coaster, which had been soaked from the brackish water of the canal, there was no identification on her body. Neither were her fingerprints in any of the standard databases. A young woman with her head bashed in a mere ten or fifteen minute walk from the tourist-choked streets of Waikiki was never something about which the Mayor’s Office or the Visitor’s Bureau was exactly ecstatic. Now, though, with Christmas just a few weeks away – and with it hoards of visitors celebrating the holidays in Hawai’i Nei – the pressure was really on to solve the case.
“I’m not a beer drinker, Ray” Higa finally replied with a twinkle in his eye. “You know that. As far as ‘tiger piss’ is concerned, well, I’ll have to take your word for it. The Japanese have some weird, traditional herbal remedies – maybe not as many as the Chinese – but I can’t recall my parents or grandparents ever recommending tiger urine for anything.”
Kanahele clambered to his feet. He spent a few seconds looking through his papers and shuffled another one to the top.
“I suppose we better get back to our friggin’ list. Thank God most of the places that serve or sell this crap are in the Waikiki and Kaimuki areas. Otherwise we’d be chasing all over the island. As it is, I promised Maile we’d go downtown and check out the Honolulu City Lights. We already missed the ‘Electric Light Parade’. Shit, between this case and her schedule at the nursing home, it’s been days since we’ve even had a meal together.”
Higa was too polite to say so aloud, but knowing his longtime partner as well as he did, he was pretty sure that the thought of missing another meal rather than an inability to visit the City and County of Honolulu’s month-long festival of holiday lights and decorations with his long-suffering spouse was what really upset Kanahele. With a sigh, Higa recalled that he had told his girlfriend and the woman’s ten-year-old son that they, too, would make the trip downtown together to take in the sights “one of these nights.” The way things were going, though, he wasn’t holding out much hope of ‘making good’ on his promise either.
Short of clues, Higa had called around to the beer and liquor distributors on Oahu in order to compile a list of bars and restaurants that sold Tiger Gold Medal. Armed with a picture of their Jane Doe the two detectives had spent the last few days trolling the watering holes and hotel lounges that offered the Singaporean beer. So far, Higa and Kanahele had come up empty; and they had only two places left to visit.
As the two detectives got into their car, Higa’s phone began playing the theme from Hawaii Five-O. He looked down at the display. Kanahele turned to the right and glanced at his friend on the passenger side.
“Aren’t you going to get that?”
“No,” Higa answered. “It’s Charlie Apana. You remember him, right?”
“He’s the guy who trained you, isn’t he? I heard he was having some issues since he retired.”
Higa fiddled with his phone and clipped it back to his belt. The two men stopped at a light on Kapahula directly across from the Rainbow Drive-In. Kanahele looked wistfully out his window at his favorite plate-lunch spot as the light changed and they continued toward Ala Wai Bulevard. The trade winds had picked up and the palms that lined the road swayed gracefully. Their soft susurration could just be heard above the traffic noise.
It had, in fact, been Apana’s retirement that had cleared the way for Higa’s promotion to detective. The two men weren’t especially close, but the veteran detective had stayed on for a few months in order to show Higa the ropes and to help him tie up some loose ends on a couple of old cases before he left for good. It had been years since Higa had heard from Apana. Curiously, this was the third time the older man had phoned in the last two or three days.
“‘Trained’ might be too strong. But I did learn a lot from Charlie in the short time we worked together. He was, maybe, the best investigator I’ve ever known.” Higa declared. “As far as ‘issues’ are concerned, yeah, rumor has it he married a younger woman who has a real wild streak. Charlie always had a temper and I hear that, lately, he’s also seen the bottom of a bottle a few times too many. Not a good combination.”
“What’s he want with you,” Kanahele asked as he piloted the car onto Ala Wai Boulevard. Off to their right, the bright, tropical sun made even the dingy waters of the canal sparkle. The usually burnt out fairways of the Ala Wai Golf Course were lush and green from all the recent rain; so, too, were the slopes of the Koolau Mountains further off in the distance to the north.
“He’s bored, I guess. Who knows? Maybe the holidays have made him nostalgic. He wants me to stop over, talk shop, that kind of thing. Normally I would. Charlie was always an interesting guy. But who’s got that kind of time now?”
A few minutes later, the detectives were on Nohonani Street just up from Kuhio Avenue. Unbelievably, they found a parking spot right in front of their destination, a little dive called the Red Chamber Bar nestled between the Aqua Wave Waikiki and the Ohana Waikiki Beachcomberhotels. The entire complex looked like it had been built in the late ‘50’s or early ‘60’s. It hadn’t gone completely to seed yet but it had certainly started to wither.
The bar occupied a fairly spacious area that allowed access from the lobby of both hotels and which looked out on the tiny pool that served the guests at the ‘Wave. A gaily decorated Christmas tree stood incongruously in the corner just behind the diving board.
As their eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior, Higa and Kanahele noticed a small stage to the left of the door and a lengthy bar off to the right. In addition to the ubiquitous Christmas decorations, red leather upholstery and traditional Chinese artwork clashed with Mexican sombreros and potted cacti. Clearly the establishment had seen a number of different owners over the years, each with a different idea as to décor and theme. The only occupants were the Hawaiian bartender and a couple of middle-aged ‘hard-throwers’ about three-quarters of a way through a liquid lunch.
“Jesus,” Kanahele muttered as he and his partner seated themselves at the bar, “you’d have to drink to hang out in a place that looked like this for very long!” The sounds of Jimmy Buffett warbling his way through Mele Kalikimaka emerged from speakers tucked somewhere overhead and added to the surreal atmosphere of the surroundings.
The detectives ordered iced tea. When their drinks arrived, Higa opened his wallet to reveal his badge. Once he had the bartender’s attention, he placed the picture of their ‘Jane Doe’ face-up on top of his shield.
“Do you recognize the woman in that picture?” he asked.
“Sure,” the startled bartender answered immediately, “that’s Renee. But, man, she’s actually pretty good looking for a woman her age, know what I mean? She looks like shit in that picture.”
Congenitally unable to restrain himself, Kanahele leaned forward. “Yeah, well, she’s dead in that picture, ‘bruddah. How good you expect her to look? You know what I mean!”
The bartender’s face registered genuine surprise.
“Listen, detectives,” he stammered. “I didn’t know. We have HPD in here once in awhile … someone gets drunk and acts up, or maybe there’s, like, a fight. But, hey, this is the first time I’ve had cops in here showing me pictures of dead customers for Christ’s sake. It’s actually a pretty quiet place.”
“Yeah,” Kanahele interjected with a smile, “it reminds me of House without A Key over at the Halekulani.”
Unfazed, Higa continued. “Does this ‘Renee’ have a last name?”
“Not that I’ve ever heard anyone use. She comes in once, maybe, twice a week. Never any trouble. A good tipper; most of the time she just sits and reads … lady always has a book. It’s never too long before guys start hitting on her. Come to think of it, she hasn’t been in for a few days. Guess now I know why!”
“Do you remember the last time you saw her?
The bartender absent-mindedly wiped down the bar with a damp towel.
“Toward the end of last week … maybe Thursday. Yeah, it had to be Thursday. I was off this past Friday. I remember now because she seemed kind of down-in-the-dumps about something. I was busy, though, a holiday crowd. I never had a chance to talk to her.”
“Listen,” Higa said as he and Kanahele got to their feet. “If you think of anything else, give us a call. Here’s my card. By the way, did Renee leave with anyone that night?”
“It’s like I said, detective, at one point or another, and as quiet as she was, Renee basically left with everyone. But, no, I don’t remember that she was with anyone in particular that night. At least not that I saw, anyhow.”
With that Higa and Kanahele paid for their drinks, turned and walked out. The two habitués at the end of the bar seemed completely oblivious to what had just transpired. Kanahele was vaguely aware of Bing’s version of White Chrismas as he left the darkened interior of the bar and hit the brilliant light of the street.
“At least we have a name, that’s more than we had two hours ago,” Kanahele offered as the two men got into their car. “We should probably come back to this dive tonight when it’s more crowded. Meanwhile, we got one more place to check off our list.”
Higa, busy writing in his black, Moleskine notebook, was lost in thought.
“Listen, Ray, this is going to sound crazy, but let’s take a break. Maybe pay old Charlie Apana a visit. As I said, he was a top-notch detective. Can’t hurt, right? It’s the Christmas season after all. Think of it as an act of charity. I feel like I owe him, I guess. Besides, we can use all the karma we can get. Last I heard he was living over there on Campbell, just off Monsarrat. I have the address somewhere here in my notebook.”
Kanahele looked quizzically at his friend. All of his instincts cried out for him to object. Still, over the years he had learned to trust his often enigmatic partner’s hunches and intuitions. Wordlessly, he turned the car around and headed down the street toward Kuhio Avenue.
A few moments later, the two men turned at the corner of Kapahulu and Kalakaua and headed up Monsarrat past the zoo and the Waikiki Shell. They came to Campbell and turned right. As they did, Kanahele looked longingly at another of his favorite establishments, The Diamond Head Grill.
They parked in front of a little house near the corner of Hayden Street and got out. Somewhere in the otherwise quiet, well-tended neighborhood a dog barked. To their right, they could see the slope of Diamond Head off in the distance. The landmark shimmered in the sunlight as they walked up to the door of the house. A small banana tree growing in the yard gave off a rich, cloying scent. There didn’t seem to be a bell, so Higa knocked.
Before long, they heard footsteps. The door opened to reveal a balding, powerfully built man in his early sixties.
“Jake, son of a bitch, what a surprise,” Charlie Apana blurted. “I figured I’d never hear back from you. C’mon in. It’s great to see you.”
“Good to see you, too, Charlie. This is my partner, Ray Kanahele.” The three men shook hands. Apana held the door and the two detectives entered the house. Instead of the pizza boxes, beer cans and overflowing ashtrays they had perhaps unconsciously expected, the place was neat and tidy.
“Can I get you guys something to drink?” Apana asked as he ushered Higa and Kanahele into the living room.
“Some guava juice for me, if you have it, Charlie. We’ve been pounding the pavement most of the afternoon.”
“The same,” Kanahele echoed.
Apana headed for the kitchen. While they waited, the two men looked around the room in which they sat. What struck Higa the most – apart form the lack of photographs – were the books that lined the shelves on the far wall. He’d never have taken Charlie for a reader. Kanahele, for his part, was relieved by the absolute lack of Christmas decorations. After the Red Chamber Bar, he was glad to be in a place that was singularly devoid of theme-oriented décor
Apana returned to the living room. On a tray, he had what was clearly a Scotch for himself along with two tall, chilled glasses of guava juice. He set the tray down first. Before giving his two guests their glasses, he opened the drawer of an end table and extracted two cardboard coasters and placed them on the coffee table in front of where Higa and Kanahele were seated. The cardboard circles became immediately damp as soon as the older man set the condensation covered glasses down on top of each. Even so, the two detectives recognized the by-now-familiar image of a black ink tiger under the silhouette of a date palm tree.
Kanaele’s eyes traveled up to meet those of his partner. Simultaneously, both men turned toward their host.
“Tell me, Charlie,” Higa inquired quietly, “what’s your wife’s name?”
Apana hesitated perhaps a moment too long. He must have sensed something in his former partner’s tone.
“It’s Renee,” he responded as he averted his eyes. “Why do you ask?”
My partner’s a goddamn savant, Kanahele thought two hours later as the detectives walked back to their car. The area around Charlie Apana’s Campbell Avenue home had been cordoned off and the street was choked with all manner of official vehicles. Residents watched the early evening drama from their yards as well as from behind half-closed curtains and blinds. Christmas lights winked on in the neighborhood as the sun began to set behind the Waianae Mountains to the west.
“Looks like you and Maile might be able to make it down town to the Hale tonight after all, Ray,” Higa suggested. “I’ll take care of the paperwork on this one. He was my partner, after all.”
“Really,” Kanahele responded incredulously. “Shit, we might even have time to stop at that Italian place on Beretania. I owe you one, Jake. Really, I do.”
“Merry Christmas, my friend,” Higa spoke with more than a trace of irony, “that’s what partner’s are for.”
Short fiction by James C. Clar has been published in venues as diverse as 365 Tomorrows, Apollo’s Lyre, Static Movement, the Taj Mahal Review, Powder Burn Flash, Resident Aliens, The Magazine of Crime & Suspense. Everyday Fiction and A Twist of Noir. Stories featuring Honolulu detectives Jake Higa and Ray Kanahele may also be found from time to time right here on Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers.