Down In the Valley
By James Strauss
Arch took a seat next to Virginia who acted like he wasn't there, staring at her upraised menu, as if it offered something other than common island fare. Ahi and Matisse sat across from them with General DeWare holding court at one end.
"Did we really come in here to eat at this hour?" Arch asked Virginia, ignoring his own menu but allowing the waitress to pour him a cup of coffee. The waitress went on to fill all of their upturned cups without asking if anyone else wanted coffee. An ancient rock and roll song popular on Oahu in the sixties but heard almost nowhere else blared out softly from the kitchen: "Pearly shells, on the ocean, shining in the sun, covering up the shore…"
"So what's it going to be, more threats, or another attack by the two idiots we left bleeding back behind Longs Drugs?" Arch asked DeWare directly. Arch did not fail to note that Virginia hadn't distanced herself from his right elbow, which was barely touching her own atop the rather small table. He looked up to see Matisse smirking back at him. He eased his elbow away from Virginias.
"This is a 'Q' clearance conversation, Mr. Patton," DeWare began, and you don't hold that level of clearance. In fact I don't think you ever held that level, and your two associates here have nothing at all."
"If you're going to ask them to leave then I'm leaving with them, no matter what you order your Gestapo agents to pull next," Arch replied, keeping his tone as unemotional as possible.
"Just tell them," Virginia said, putting her menu down in front of her.
"I can't tell you everything and besides it wouldn't be in your best interest to know everything anyway," DeWare replied. "Give us the room, " he said in his general's voice, turning to stare expressive around them.
The restaurant cleared quickly, the waitresses being escorted out by some of the fake customers. In less than a minute the place was empty.
"I've tried that before, but nobody left the room when I did," Arch observed, his tone one of humorous wry disdain.
"Perhaps, if you'd been a real general you might have had more success," DeWare replied without any humor at all.
"Okay, I can tell you this much, DeWare followed, his voice turning even more edged. "The plane at Bellows isn't going anywhere. It was meant to fly something in that couldn't have been brought in any other way. The pollution you've complained about is minimized and there will be no more of it. The escaped material would never register anything greater than a person might register receiving a couple of medical CAT scans. Virginia?"
"He's telling the truth," Virginia said, nodding while she said it. We need the power to drive the communication streams among different points on the islands. But that's it. That's all we can say, and that's probably too much. The plane needs to be left alone and any public interest in Bellows needs to go away."
"And Matisse and my people?" Ahi asked, his voice deep and serious.
"Not my department," DeWare replied immediately. "If they land at Bellows Beach they'll be taken into custody and spend the duration of mission years in administrative segregation. If they fire on anybody, then they'll die, all of them right out there on Rabbit Island."
The room went quiet. Arch watched DeWare and Virginia closely but said nothing.
"Well?" Virginia asked impatiently.
"Years? Islands? Communication streams?" Arch replied after a few seconds in complete surprise. "The mission is expected to last for years and it involves more than one island?" Arch stopped talking and stared at DeWare with a deep frown, not missing the fact that the general had steered very clear of mention the word radiation when he'd talked about pollution.
"Shit," DeWare stated tersely.
"Don't beat yourself up Horace, you're not trained for this kind of reading between the lines and he is," Virginia said, patting the general's left hand lightly with her right.
"Horace?" Arch and Matisse said at the same time.
"Do you call him 'Hor' for short?" Arch asked Virginia, smiling back at Matisse's gaping expression.
"And my people?" Ahi broke in, his words delivered in the same slow drumbeat cadence as before.
"What do you people want to get the hell out of here?" DeWare said, "All of you."
"There are eleven factions in the sovereignty movement," Ahi answered slowly, his tone changed to a lighter more analytical one as he talked. "The sisters at the university have money and land. Bumpy in Waimanalo has power for his faction. The other islands have Ohana, some land and even a bit of money. What do we get?"
"You expect the United States Marine Corps to write you a check? DeWare replied, angrily, "we're right back where we started with all this. We can, however, lock the three of you up right now and throw away the damned key."
"We're not exactly where we were," Arch replied. "We know a hell of a lot more, like how badly you don't need any of this to be in the media or all over Waikiki or even the other islands. You might lock me up, and even Matisse, but there's no way Ahi is going away without a whole lot of public and private trouble."
"You're lucky to get your lives, to keep your lives as you know them to be," DeWare shot back in a deadly tone. "We gave you as much as we can and if you don't like it you can go to hell."
“Three million dollars,” Virginia said, into the momentary silence, her big black eyes locked into Ahi’s own. They stared at one another while Matisse and Arch looked shocked and the general frowned to the point where his eyebrows met in the middle of his wrinkled forehead.
The table went silent again as Ahi considered the obvious offer.
“Land,” Ahi stated, flatly, placing one of his pie plate-sized hands on the table between them.
“One block,” Virginia replied, “ about a quarter acre, on the edge of Kaneohe Marine Base near where that phony Earthtrust environmental outfit used to be.”
“Bullshit,” DeWare hissed at Virginia, “you can’t give away military base property at your whim. That would take an act of Congress.”
“Or a presidential order,” Virginia replied, turning her face toward him with a pleasant-seeming cold smile.
“President?” Arch asked. “Other islands? Nuclear power plants flown in with unlikely leakage flowing out into the ocean? Communications of some weird higher order? What’s going on here? This isn’t any kind of mission I’ve ever heard of, much less been a part of. Next you’ll be talking about interplanetary war and UFOs.”
DeWare and Virginia stared at Arch, without comment following, until well past the end of his quietly delivered tirade.
“You’re not an agent anymore, so you’re out of it entirely,” DeWare finally responded while Virginia went back to looking at her cheap torn menu.
“What do you want?” Virginia asked Arch, without taking her eyes away from the menu.
“I want to make sure you’re safe and I want to know what’s really going on,” Arch answered, deliberately bumping her elbow to demand more engagement, "and I want you to tell me that there's no alien bullshit in any of this. That UFO reference was meant to be a joke." Arch said the words and waited. A cold feeling had become to form in the middle of his stomach when neither Virginia nor DeWare had batted an eye or taken his comment as being anything but serious.
“Can she do it?” Ahi asked into the silence.
“The three million?" Arch answered with his own question. "Yes, if the president is playing on their team they can probably do whatever they want, assuming national security is somehow mixed into the bargain, or worse.
“I accept under one condition,” Ahi agreed, “and that one’s easy. I won’t abandon my friends Matisse and Arch here since, having personal experience now, you people don’t seem to mind committing almost any act of violence to accomplish your unknown mission of mystery.”
“If everyone follows the agreement we make here then no more violence but if there is any violation, and I mean any violation, then anything may happen, and you don't have to abandon your friends, you simply have to stay away from them and out of it,” DeWare stated, spreading his hands to either side, as if welcoming such an unspecified violation. “You agree, Virginia?” he added with a fake smile, his unblinking eyes never leaving Arch’s.
Virginia looked at Arch before slowly nodding her head slowly.
Arch looked from DeWare to Virginia and back, still uncertain as to who was really in charge. Virginia’s uncommon reticence and her obvious lack of willingness to approve across the board violence only strengthened his resolve.
“What about the Stairway to Heaven?” he asked of DeWare.
“Shit,” DeWare hissed out again. “How in hell?”
“Enough!” Virginia cut in between the vitriolic looks passing between DeWare and Arch. “That’s classified, and you damned well know it Arch. Stop baiting him. Give in and get the hell out. I don’t want or need your damaged, macho and entirely misplaced form of protection. You don't ever stop violence. Wherever you go and whatever you do violence follows you around like Pigpen’s cloud.”
“Me? Your people did this to my hand,” Arch replied, his tone more hurt than angry. “Your people smashed their van into our car not twenty minutes ago half a mile from where we sit. I didn’t do anything except come out here to see you. Instead I run into a weak-kneed substitute of a real Marine, and you put me back in play with a traitor for a partner and the two stooges acting like Keystone Cops trying to abuse me.”
“You shot Lorrie in the hand, probably crippling him for life, and God only knows what shape their in back at Longs,” Virginia replied, her tone icy cold and deliberate.
“We’re done here,” DeWare said, getting to his feet. “We’ve got a deal, if I can make the extortion thing happen with the land. You handle the money thing Virginia. I don’t want to know anything about that. And as for you Corporal Patton, or whatever your real appropriate rank was, I hope you stick up your ugly macho head again. Next time you’ll be at the other end of a Recon sniper’s bullet. The only reason you’re alive now is because I wouldn’t let that Apache take you out.”
“And there you go again,” Arch replied, instantly, getting to his own feet. “Only the Army has Apache choppers and they don’t take orders from Marines. None of any of this should be happening in the real world.”
Suddenly, Virginia stood and turned. She hugged Arch to her, and whispered into his right ear. “I love you. I know you can’t understand. Thank you for trying.” She pushed herself away and took DeWare’s hand in her own. “Tomorrow morning Mr. Ahi, the money will be delivered by cashier’s check out to your hangout near Chinaman’s Hat. You can have your people set up shop in our vacated Earthtrust offices whenever you want.”
DeWare and Virginia walked out the front door of the restaurant, leaving Ahi, Matisse and Arch at the table. Arch fell rather than sat back into his chair across form the two other men.
“Our vacated Earthtrust offices? It just keeps on not adding up. Earthtrust is or was CIA? How can that be? How awful is that?” he breathed the sentences out slowly, his mind roiling with all the disjointed pieces of a puzzle he couldn’t quite grasp. Meanwhile, inside his heart twisted, watching Virginia lightly kiss DeWare on the café’s lanai before they parted, and deep down he felt the first twinges of fear concerning what he'd gotten himself into. He knew he wasn't getting himself out of whatever it was until things made more sense.
“I am truly sorry Arch,” Ahi began, looking down at this big hands lying flat on the table between them. “The money makes our cause. The land, however small, is to be our land and our starting place. Our movement is going from renting to ownership overnight.”
“So you’re out. I get it. I’ve used enough bribes in my career and I’ve never known a big enough one to be turned down. What about you, my new supposed friend,” he said, directing his words to Matisse.”
Matisse looked over at Ahi, who did not meet his eyes, before turning his attention back to Arch. “As you can see, I don’t have many friends because none of my friends agree with me about anything. I’m stuck with you. The Stairway to Heaven. It’s got to be the key. Did you see how angry that fake general got when you brought it up? We only know about the stairs because of me."
“He’s the real general, and I’m the fake one, Matisse. But you’re right about the stairway. There’s something up there at the very top of the Koolaus and maybe it’s the key. What are you going to do?
“I’m going with my friend. But we have to go somewhere else first,” he concluded, his face bright with enthusiasm and good humor.
“Where?” Arch replied, for some reason much more relieved than he thought he might be.
“Before the stairway we’ve got to go back down in that valley,” Matisse grinned hugely. “Down in the valley of the shadow of death.”