DOWN IN THE VALLEY
By James Strauss
Matisse drove the Bonneville with less than his usual abandon. The Sunday afternoon traffic on Kam Highway was simply overwhelming and there was no place to pass, illegally or otherwise, along the entire length of the two-lane highway. Despite the traffic, Matisse chattered away about Climb Aloha, a store near St. Louis High School on the Leeward side of the island. The drawback in getting supplies from the place was twofold, as far as Arch was concerned. Some of the things they'd have to have for the climb would not be available in any shop on Oahu, period. And if they were, the prices would totally blow out the one credit card any of them had. But it was a moot point since the place, extolled as the greatest climbing store in the world by Matisse, wasn't open until one in the afternoon of the following day. The climb would have to be started long before that hour or they might be trapped on the side of the mountain for the night. Matisse appeared to be a bit out of shape and Arch had his damaged hand. There was only one place they were likely to get what they needed.
"Where we spend the night?" Matisse asked, his voice easily carrying over the convertible's wind noise since the car was moving at only about thirty miles per hour at most.
Arch didn’t respond to Matisse’s question because he didn’t have an answer. As the old battered crate of an automobile burbled along with the traffic, Arch sat in the passenger seat of the Pontiac while the sun beat down through the spaces between the overhanging trees. He had no place to stay, without using even more credit that his card probably wouldn’t bear. He really had no place to go back to. He had his agency retirement pay, but that barely equaled what he spent. Upon bitter reflection Arch realized the trip to Oahu, which he had booked as a round trip, was really a one-way trip. He was backed into a corner of his own making. He’d been there until the end of Vietnam, but had come home in physical and mental pieces, although he knew he would never, in reality, truly come home. He’d been through more trauma with the CIA, despite mission after mission being successful. He’d retired, but never truly come home from them, or the stuff he’d done with them, either. He had Virginia, the love of his life, Matisse, his only friend, and a Bellows mission of his own undertaking. He was determined to fight for her, keep Matisse as a friend, and figure out the riddle of the mission.
Matisse took a right when they finally inched up to, and through, the traffic light at Pupukea near Sunset Beach. He drove the smoking Bonneville all the way through the Foodland parking lot, and parked in one of the empty handicapped spots near the radar doors.
“We get some Poke to help us think,” Matisse said, with one of his usual grins. He eased his wide and powerful frame from the Pontiac and slammed the door, as if to draw the most attention he could. “If they want movem’ the car, show em your hand,” he laughed. And walked away, leaving Arch frowning, wondering how a bandaged hand was supposed to qualify for handicapped parking privileges, but he said nothing.
“Stairway has changed,” Ahi intoned quietly from the back seat. “Before you go there you must go see. They have guards at the bottom but not further up. You can get further up if you go Haiku way, and not easy way.”
Arch turned, slinging his left arm over the broad back of the old car’s bench front seat. “Why make two trips,” he asked?
“Go to guards, and see what they can see further up. Stairway is not like some think. It’s not ladder rungs drilled into the stone. It’s mostly rusted and decayed actual steps, except in the steepest places. The stairway rolls over three hills before going up the highest point. There’s two areas cleared at the top of hills. They call them platforms, but they’re not really. They’re just stops for the old cable car. Across the He’eia Stream Valley a huge cable is strung that goes up to the peak.”
“Cable car?” Arch responded in surprise. “There’s a cable car? And how do we get there through Haiku, the whole community’s gated. They’re not going to let us through.”
“You don’t go through Haiku Plantation,” Ahi answered. That’s wealthy homes and somebody would report you, anyway. You go to Waiaole Reserve and then cross first valley. At the top there you’ll see the big freeway, H3, and you can see the end of the other road there. That’s as far as I’ve ever been. From Hololio in Haiku all the way up the stream is an old Hawaiian burial ground. The warriors who were pushed over the Pali are there. Hawaiians don’t go there ever.”
“Oh great, a native burial ground,” Arch said, exhaling deeply. “What about Matisse.” He’s Hawaiian. I can’t go without him because of my hand.”
“Matisse is Matisse. He doesn’t believe in anything. He only makes believe because he thinks it makes me feel better. He’s only Hawaiian by blood. It’s why most locals don’t want him around too much. He’s like you that way. He doesn’t really believe in anything or anybody, so nobody believes in him. He plays good ukulele and sings though.”
Arch stared into Ahi’s deep dark eyes but saw no humor whatsoever.
He turned back to see Matisse returning through Foodland’s front door.
Arch couldn’t play the ukulele and also couldn’t sing worth a damn. He wondered if Ahi had intended to reduce him to almost nothing. Knowing that he had probably not meant anything personal, hurt even more.
Matisse climbed in, slammed the car door and shared the raw seasoned Poke around. Arch took a few chunks in his bare hands, only realizing how hungry he was when he consumed the first square cut chunk. Hawaiian Poke was the only raw fish he ever ate.
“Where we go? Take Ahi back, but where do we stay? My place not so good in Kalihi. Too many locals making trouble, and you too Haole. I got this under the counter. Only for locals like me.”
“What’s too local mean?” Arch asked, absently, but then realized it really didn’t matter and he wouldn’t understand whatever answer Matisse gave him anyway. “After Ahi, we go get the Lincoln. Then we take it to Kaneohe and get some gear. We have to hike in before sunset so we can reconnoiter the area at the base of the stairs.”
“Reconnoiter. I like that word, and we going right to where the general lives? I like that too. We bare the bear in his den.” Matisse replied, eating the raw fish one piece after another. The two pounds of “local special” Poke was gone in less than a minute. “Where we sleep tonight, out in the forest?”
“We’ll see,” Arch answered, evasively. “And it’s ‘beard the lion in his den.”
“You think Haole woman stay with general?” Ahi asked, wiping his fingers on some of the many napkins Matisse had returned with.
Arch returned his gaze to the big Hawaiian in the back seat. “Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe we just stay there.”
For some reason Ahi thought the idea humorous. He laughed out loud with Matisse joining in. “We bare the lion,” Matisse said, between laughs.
Matisse drove the Pontiac past Sunset to near the windmills of Kaaava where Ahi lived. The small, nondescript bungalow was set into a heavy stand of bamboo, and overgrown cane bushes.
"I give you my blessing," Ahi told them, as Matisse backed the Pontiac down the pulverized coral driveway, "I wish I could do more but I must take care of my people."
Neither Matisse nor Arch said anything until they were back in front of Virginia's house at Sunset. The black Lincoln sat where they'd left it earlier.
"You going to check it for bugs?" Matisse asked Arch, as Arch hit the fob button to unlock it.
"No. We really don't care. We just won't talk about anything until we're done at the base, and dump it back here. We'll never get into Kaneohe in your car."
"We really going to take over her house?" Matisse asked, climbing into the passenger side. "What if she comes back? What if Kurt and Lorrie show up armed to the teeth?"
"So what?" Arch answered. "We'll be ready for anything by then. We won't get back until after dark anyway. If anybody's there then we'll sleep in the car at the beach. I'm a little tired of being attacked by those people."
The drive to the base was silent and uneventful, although long because of all the North Shore visitors returning to Honolulu late in the day. Arch drove up to the Marine gate, showed his identification card and was immediately saluted. The guard passed the car through without comment, as Arch expected. The Bellows mission wasn't being shared with gate security. The secret nature of whatever was going on made the whole project less secure for anybody who understood how such things work in the real world.
"There's a climbing store on the base?" Matisse asked Arch, in wonder.
"Regimental Supply," Arch told him. "There's a recon detachment working out of the base, and they'll have everything we need and more. It's Sunday so regular staff will be off. Hopefully we can convince whoever's left to let us make off with what we need."
Arch had to stop four different times to grill pedestrians about where the recon supply might be located. It turned out to be an old Quonset hut located next to the airstrip’s main hangar. Arch drove right past all the signs warning against automobiles crossing the flight line. There was no activity in, or around, the huge closed hangar, and only one Humvee parked near the Quonset hut. He parked the big Lincoln next to the military vehicle, motioned for Matisse to wait, and walked through the unlocked hut door into the darkened interior. A small office window barely illuminated the domed structure's interior. Arch opened the office door without knocking but not before taking out his I.D. card. A staff sergeant sat looking at a computer monitor with his back turned.
"Staff Sergeant," Arch said his voice flat and hard.
The staff sergeant almost jumped from his seat, but still had the time to hit the kill switch for the monitor, as he flipped around preparing to salute. When he saw Arch's civilian attire he visibly relaxed but still remained at a position of attention.
"Sir," he responded, staring straight ahead and not at Arch.
"We need some gear sergeant," Arch indicated amiably, holding his card out over the narrow low counter.
The staff sergeant looked at the card briefly without taking it from Arch's hand. "Sir," he said with more emphasis, snapping back to attention.
"I need some climbing gear, the right binos, a set of NVGs and whatever else I can find, and I need it now. I've got a local doing the back work out in my Lincoln. See what you can do to help him." Arch walked out of the office without waiting to see what the staff sergeant's reaction would be. The number of general officers a sergeant in the Marine Corps might ever encounter personally, even during an entire career, was next to none and he was counting on the shock power of his rank, real or not.
The lights came on inside the hut and Arch went to work. It took almost fifteen minutes to find the necessary ropes, carbiners, gloves and anything else he felt they might need for the climb. He watched the sergeant almost balk when he pulled out a black box containing a brand new set of fourth generation night vision goggles. Losing a set of those could be career changing for any supply NCO, no matter what credentials the requesting officer had. But the sergeant carried them out, along with a couple of very expensive Leica binoculars.
"What do I put down for the use?" the sergeant asked, writing furiously near the back of the Lincoln while Matisse loaded everything into the trunk.
"Just put it down to the Bellows operation and I'll sign for everything," Arch answered, offhandedly. "We gotta move out before the sun goes down."
The sergeant looked up from his clipboard. "You’re with General DeWare on Torch?" he inquired.
"You got it staff sergeant. Make it so," Arch used the words of Captain Piccard from Star Trek the Next Generation, with a suppressed smile. He signed the clipboard, and then added his officer's serial number more for the sergeant's protection than his own.
Matisse's only comment before they got back inside the Lincoln caused Arch to smile. "This better store than Climb Aloha."
The trip back to Virginia's house was much faster than the trip to the base, as the traffic was all heading the other way. Once again, neither man spoke during the journey, in case the Lincoln really was bugged. There was nobody at the house, so they merely loaded everything from the Lincoln into the battered and damaged trunk of the Pontiac, before heading toward the forest preserve described earlier by Ahi.
It took only about half an hour to make their way back to the Japanese cemetery adjacent to Haiku Plantation. The road around the cemetery was unpaved, old, and overgrown by all manner of local flora. The Lincoln's paint job would have been ruined by their passage into the preserve. The Pontiac, however, once they arrived at the end of the road, seemed the same as it had been before they left. Arch looked at the car briefly, meeting Matisse's proud eyes, before helping him pull out the binoculars.
"We won't need the other stuff until tomorrow.
They had a rough idea of where they were going, because the huge elevated freeway was always visible in the distance. The two men trudged around the many trees and through the heavy bracken. There were multiple paths leading in all directions, but enough going the way they wanted to make the hike fairly easy. The small valley that preceded the larger valley with the stream at the bottom, proved almost effortless to negotiate. When they reached the top of the second rise, the freeway ran almost directly over their heads. It was so high up, and set so deeply into the mountainside, they could barely hear the trucks and cars passing above them. They settled into the top of the rise behind some fallen tree trunks and took out the binoculars.
"What do you see?" Arch asked, his face glued to the eyepieces of the Leica's.
"Right there," Matisse pointed.
Arch pulled back from his glasses to follow Matisse's pointing finger. He went back to the binoculars and found the object of Matisse's interest.
It was a chain link fence. He moved the sliding lever at the center of the binoculars to allow fifteen-power magnification. A white sign was hung on the inside of the chain fence. The large black letters of the sign warned: "Keep out. Government property. You are in danger of losing your life if you pass beyond this point without authorization." It was the same signs Arch had seen at Bellows, and many years before at the Los Alamos Laboratories in the high mountains of New Mexico. It was the definitive sign U.S. governmental forces used when they weren't kidding around.
"Watch," Matisse whispered, as if there was anyone closer than half a mile from their position.
Arch stared through the Leica lenses until his eyes hurt, and finally saw what Matisse was referring to. Once he pinned down a faint movement, and difference in coloration, he realized what he was looking at. Two roughly man-shaped figures stood behind the heavy vegetation near the fence. The fence had a large gate with railings just beyond the entrance. The gate was held shut by a large padlock holding thick, heavy chains together. The two men moved slowly back and forth, as if pacing across a very tiny parade ground. "Why they move?" Matisse asked.
"The enemy of all security," Arch replied. "Boredom. They never see anything. They're bored out of their minds. Probably don't even have cell phones so they won't be distracted. They aren’t Marines though. Marines don't wear blue utilities. That would be Air Force or private security. Private security isn't likely but then neither is Air Force participation. Why would every damned service in the U.S. inventory be involved in this? It makes no sense at all."
"How we get around?" Matisse inquired; still staring through his own set of Leica's.
"See what they can see from where they are?" Arch asked back.
"They can't see dick! They can't even see us. The hill goes right up behind them," Matisse answered, gleefully.
"Exactly! That’s what Ahi wanted us to see," Arch said, slowly bringing his glasses down to rest on top of one of the moist rotten logs they were resting on. "We’ll come in from here tomorrow, and head right down into the valley before going up and around where the first platform must be. Then we go up."