DOWN IN THE VALLEY
By James Strauss
Peeling the duct tape from Virginia's face was like peeling skin from the surface of a Kiwi fruit. Virginia said nothing. Her eyes spoke for her and there was as much warmth in them as there is warmth emanating from the bottom of blue glacier ice.
"There," Arch announced, with a tepid smile and a small forced laugh.
Then he went to work on freeing her bound wrists. Matisse handed over a small pocketknife, with the blade exposed, to assist. Being very careful not to injure the woman further, Arch sliced slowly through the sticky tape.
"You bastard," Virginia breathed out, using the fingers of both freed hands to massage and smooth the lower part of her face. "I see you've added some more fat to your ridiculous band of local swine," she continued, glaring first at Matisse and then Ahi, both standing on the other side of the small coffee table that separated them.
"Where's the Haole woman?" Ahi asked, craning his huge head to look around the room. "Where's the, you know, the wonderful Haole woman you love?"
Matisse turned his head to avoid the appearance of laughing openly.
Arch frowned at the Abbot and Costello routine he was observing, but his attention was caught by the faint sound of someone using the front stairs.
"Who's in the house?" he asked, thinking of Kurt and Lorrie left bound and gagged upstairs by John Martin's hastily gathered team of whatever they were. Neither Matisse nor Ahi made any response.
"I want you and your flock of Kanaka lemmings to get the hell out of my house right now," Virginia ordered. In emphasis, she rose unsteadily to her feet while pointing toward the glass double doors still gaping open in the wind. As all eyes in the room turned to look where she was pointing, a man walked through the curtains.
"No one seems to be answering the front door," General DeWare said, entering and stopping when he was a few feet from Matisse's right shoulder.
"Apparently, that didn't deter you," Arch responded, putting the General's sudden appearance together with the footsteps he'd heard earlier.
"I presume the two imbeciles you have working for you are running free to commit more stupidity?"
"Enough with the verbal jousting," DeWare answered, raising one hand as if to ward off further comments. "I think it's time we all had a talk about what's going on and what needs to be done,"
"Now why don't I think that's going to happen?" Arch asked, rising to his feet and standing next to Virginia.
"This isn't a secure place," the general said, acting like Arch hadn't even spoken. "Let's all meet in half an hour at the Haleiwa Café. There won't be anyone there at this hour after lunch. No recordings. Nobody will be listening in. We can be frank with one another."
Arch marveled at the smooth delivery of the man and his obvious ability to immediately take and hold control of the situation. The knowledge made him dislike the man all the more. "Do you think we're that dumb? If you wanted listening devices then they'd already be in place. The Café is probably another of your little "safe house" operations." Arch knew he was sounding paranoid and possibly silly but he couldn't stop himself. The general seemed to garner all of Virginia's attention every time he was on the scene. Arch glanced at Virginia’s face for any kind of support but she only had eyes for the general, her head nodding like one of those bobbing doll’s to be found in the back window of some old classic car.
"Your rental's out front parked on the road," DeWare said, tossing the Lincoln’s keys to Virginia instead of Arch. Arch snatched the keys in mid-air, only realizing afterward that the gesture revealed just how much the man was successfully playing on his angry emotion.
Arch tool a few deep breaths, slowly sliding the key fob into his right front pocket. "Okay, half an hour. The Café." Before he could add anything more Virginia walked over the general and they went out through the double doors together, leaving Arch standing with Matisse and Ahi in front of him.
"That went well," Ahi observed.
"He has troubled relationships," Matisse added in Arch's defense.
"Shut up. Both of you," Arch stated, flatly. "There are a lot more serious implications about all this. What's going on between Virginia and I is none of your business."
"Okay, and it's the first time any of them, anyone at all, has been willing to talk to us since this started," Ahi agreed.
"Matisse, check and see if those clowns upstairs are gone, “Arch ordered. “And both of you please remember that I'm not part of your cause, no matter what I believe about it. I came here because of the woman and got thrown into whatever this is, but I'm not siding with you guys or anybody else."
"You just called her 'the woman,'" Ahi replied.
"Will you stop with these inane observations?" Arch shot back.
Matisse returned to report that the two bound men were gone, as predicted. They all walked silently out to where the Pontiac was parked. The Lincoln was about a hundred feet further down the road. Arch noted that the afternoon sun was hotter than normal when a spot was occupied where the trade winds didn't reach.
"C'mon, we'll take the Lincoln. It has air," Arch said, walking toward the rental while clicking the locks open with his key fob.
"They had the Lincoln," Ahi said, using his understated ‘Wisdom of Buddha’ tone.
"They returned it," Matisse said, as the three approached the car together, "and it looks like they even washed it. Only the Marines would do that," he finished proudly.
"That's not what he meant," Arch said, stopping at the driver's door and looking into the cars interior. "We don't know much yet, and it might be valuable to some people if we didn't know anymore. Let's take the Bonneville. With the top down it'll be fine as long as it's not driven at a hundred miles an hour." Arch stared at Matisse meaningfully when he was done.
"A bomb? A bomb? Are we talking about a bomb?" Matisse, said, astonishment coloring his every word.
"Probably not anything so dramatic, or drawing as much attention. Probably just bugged to high heaven," Arch answered, turning to head back to where the Pontiac was parked.
Ahi took up most of the back seat while Arch drove shotgun. For the first time the Pontiac did not start instantly when Matisse turned the key.
"Oh no, my luck's run out. Please start," cajoled Matisse, lovingly patting the car's steering wheel with his spare hand as he used the other to turn the ignition key.
"Stop before you run down the battery," Arch instructed. "Pop the hood." Arch got out and walked to front of the car. He pulled up on the heavy hood. There was no secondary latch. "The distributor top is loose," he observed, leaning forward and down to snap the part back into place.
He dropped the hood when he was done, its slamming sound echoing back and forth off the ugly cinder block walls located on each side of the road.
Hawaii was a place of opposites and anachronisms. Intense living beauty interrupted everywhere with drop-dead ugliness. The trick was not to notice the ugliness and enjoy the beauty part.
The car started with its usual instant élan. Matisse lowered the electric powered top, which for unknown reasons still worked, and took off like he was leaving the Launchpad at Canaveral.
"That never happen before," he yelled over the growing buffet of the wind.
"Detached motivation," Arch answered. "One car doesn't start, you have a half an hour to make a half an hour trip so you use the other car available instead of mucking with the dead one. If they wanted to plant a bomb they'd have put it in this one without giving us another. And if they did what they obviously did, then we've probably got a few more surprises coming."
"Man, you evil thinking," Matisse, responded, laughing into the wind.
"No, he's just smart," Ahi said from the back seat, his voice barely audible over the noise of their passage.
It took twenty minutes to get to the outskirts of Haleiwa, mostly because the tourists blocked the road at Turtle Beach to cross and see the many animals there. The authorities had made it as difficult to pull over and screw up the traffic as possible, but their efforts made little or no difference. On the weekend, the wait was at least ten minutes just to get by the hundred-yard stretch of Kam Highway, without killing or maiming anyone. Matisse took the first turn off instead of using the bypass to come at the town from the other side. The Haleiwa Café was near the far end of the town.
When the car was slowed to five miles an hour by the downtown traffic on the narrow two-lane shop covered road, it became quiet enough inside the car to be heard.
"I love driving through town," Matisse pointed out. "We got plenty time. People love my car. They all smile and wave."
"Yeah, all your great local friends," Arch said, acidly.
"Many people love Makaha Matisse but they have difficulty showing true affection," Ahi concluded.
As the car went past the partially closed Matsumoto Shave Ice General Store, an unmarked gray van pulled out from the side of the road into the side of the Pontiac. The van caromed away, and then took an immediate right down into Longs Drug Store parking lot. Matisse jerked the wheel to keep from having a head on accident with an oncoming truck.
"Pakatadi," Matisse yelled, using an virulent Japanese epithet.
He steered the Pontiac to the side of the road and stopped, with Arch leaning into his right shoulder, having barely avoided his arm being ripped off from the van's impact. He cradled his damaged hand against his stomach.
"You okay, Ahi?" Matisse inquired, looking back.
"It seems your friend was correct," Ahi said, seemingly unhurt and unmoved by the crash.
Matisse accelerated the Bonneville back into the traffic but turned right down into the Long's lot. The van had been held up in traffic. They all saw its taillights blink red as it turned into the loading alley behind the local drug store. Matisse blasted the Pontiac forward, ignoring tourists jumping away on foot, and seemingly oblivious to the many moving cars in the lot. He pulled past the alley and stopped the car violently, driving them all forward inside the passenger compartment.
"For Christ's sake Matisse, what in hell are you doing?" Arch complained, his hand once again painfully jostled.
"I see the bastard," Matisse answered. "He's sitting at the end of the alley. He's blocked by the dumpster. Got him. Nobody does that to my Bonny! Nobody! I show them some demolition derby driving trick. You hit them with back of car, not front or side. Then you can keep driving. Ha ha!"
Matisse gunned the Pontiac and threw it into reverse. He pulled into the alley, one arm swung over the seat, his neck craning around and accelerated the Bonneville. With both Arch and Ahi yelling "no" at the same time the car flew backwards and straight into the rear of the van. Arch and Ahi had time to duck down and allow the seats to take the full force of the impact. The van flew up, sideways and then into a nearby palm tree. Matisse pulled the Pontiac a few feet forward.
"Now we mash 'em into pulp," he cried vengefully.
"Stop," Arch commanded, grabbing the steering wheel with his good hand.
Kurt's head appeared above the lip of the driver's side window on the van. His fingers clutched over the open window's edge. He stared with huge eyes at the Pontiac's twisted rear end.
"Enough," Ahi commanded Matisse, joining Arch in trying to stop the man's obvious rage.
"Fine. Just fine," Matisse said, in a forceful but pouting tone. They wreck my car and that's it. I'm tired of everybody wrecking me and all my stuff and getting away with it."
Arch took his hand from the wheel and patted Matisse softly on the shoulder. "You're right. None of this is your fault. I am your friend, and I want to thank you for all you've done."
"Really?" Matisse asked, in surprise. "Really?"
"The van was to destabilize us, not to hurt us, at least not to hurt us much. Let's go. You think the car can make it, we've only got a couple of minutes and those bastards will probably leave if we're not on time. This whole routine is called "take the pebbles from my hand."
Matisse eased the car forward experimentally. "She'll do. Tough car my Pontiac, but somebody's going to pay to make her look like Queen Emma again." He moved the vehicle gingerly through the Long's lot and back into the Haleiwa traffic. "What pebbles?" he asked, finally.
"There was an old television show about a bunch of monks who were specialists in the martial arts. Every weekly show would open with a young acolyte being asked to try to grab three stone pebbles from a highly trained monk's open hand. The acolyte could never grab them in time before the monk closed his hand. The opening segment always had the monk holding out his hand and saying "take the pebbles from my hand."
"Okay," Matisse said, as they approached the end of Haleiwa and the café, "but what does it mean to us?"
"It means that these people are trying to force us to be the acolytes, while they are the trained wise old monks," Ahi answered. "It's about psychology."
"It also means they want something from us or they wouldn't bother," Arch added.
The run down café sat facing the road. It had an old western saloon-style front door, and a front portico that was nearly falling apart with wood rot, termite damage and decay. Matisse pulled alongside the building and drove down the thin dusty white alley to the parking lot in the rear. The dust wasn't from gravel or dirt. It was from dried old reef material that'd been ground up and then spread to cover the dirt. There was little doubt that the general was inside the restaurant with plenty of reinforcement. Government-style black Chevy Suburbans, and even a thinly disguised Marine Corps staff car, were parked illegally on the grass of an adjoining empty lot.
"This place remains the dump it's always been," Arch commented, getting out the car.
"Maybe," Matisse responded, "but it's run by my friends."
"Of course, what a shock." Arch said, shaking his head wearily, while leading them to the crummy building’s front door.
Arch opened the ratty torn screen door, and stepped into a different world.
The general and Virginia sat at their own table in the middle of the single room. The room was about the size of regular master bedroom in a tract home. The tables around the room were occupied by men and women who gave every appearance of being military, but were dressed like the general, in local Aloha attire. There wasn't one male, of the fifteen in the room, who had hair more than an inch long. The other distinctive feature of the place was the obvious addition of white tablecloths on all the tables.
Nobody in the place moved or said a word except for the general. He stood up and greeted them with a smile. "Table for five, just as agreed," DeWare said, expansively holding out an open hand toward them with his palm facing up.
"Take the pebbles from my hand," Matisse whispered almost silently from just behind Arch.