DOWN IN THE VALLEY
By James Strauss
Arch scrapped the idea of hiking in through the Waialua Forest. The topography was just too difficult. By the time he and Matisse were anywhere near the base of the stairs, mid-day would long have passed. He’eia Stream ran all the way from deep inside the Koolau valley and only broke through to the surface near the base of Heeia Pier. Arch and Matisse sat just outside the He’eia Pier Store. Old man Chow’s kid, a man nobody could ever remember the name of, ran the place. The kid ran the place Hong Kong style. You could get anything you wanted at his store, if you had enough money and time. But the marine fuel concession he held really paid for the availability of the rest. Marine fuel was almost twice the price of regular gas, but in Hawaii any boat had to be run on it, instead of by the same gasoline put into cans at regular gas stations. The fact that half the price went directly into the concessionaire’s pocket was never discussed. Boater’s were used to the outrageousness of the arrangement, and the injustice at least meant that little places like Chow’s small dive were dotted around the shoreline of Oahu.
There was a continuous stream of all kinds of people entering and leaving Chows. When it broke up a bit, Arch asked Matisse “Tell me what you know about the climb.” When Matisse didn’t reply, he followed up with “Can we do it?” Matisse continued to consume his spam and eggs served over a hot sticky mass of white rice, turned black by a liberal pouring of Aloha Soy Sauce.
“Not climb,” Matisse replied between bites, taking a swig of his four-dollar cup of Kona coffee. “Never climbed. But I heard from my bra,” Matisse continued, “No ladders, no rungs, just metal steps with railings if they’re still there. The whole thing is falling down, but ropes and equipment aren’t important, or at least that’s what my bras used to say. Nobody talks about it anymore. I don’t know why.” Matisse went back to finishing up every last scrap of his breakfast.
Arch looked down at his injured hand with a sense of hope. He hadn’t been at all certain that he would be able to do the climbing. He looked up and out over the bay. From where Arch sat he could see Kaneohe Marine Base clearly. His eyes were drawn to a small island sitting half way between the base and the end of the pier. Arch was one of the few residents of Oahu who’d ever visited the island. Coconut Island (Moku o Loʻe). The island that would have become famous if the producers of the old television show Gilligan’s Island had continued filming there instead of only shooting the first three shows there. After those first episodes the show had bailed out and moved to a set in Los Angeles. Years earlier Arch used anthropology credentials to get out to the island, and had walked through the falling down sets still strewn about with fake rocks, and phony palm trees. The Department of Natural Resources denied all visits to regular citizens. Today nothing was likely left of the old Hollywood sets, as the University of Hawaii had taken it over to build a marine studies institute.
“Where we leave car?” Matisse asked.
“Isn’t the community college right down from H3 there?” Arch replied, still staring at the island offshore.
“Yeah, but the parking lot for the mental hospital is even closer. Nobody will notice us,” Matisse said.
Arch looked over at his companion to see if he was smiling, but Matisse seemed unaware of the humor buried inside his comment.
“How far to the stairs?” he asked, once again examining his hand.
“Not far. The has a path right to it under the freeway, but we have to climb a little hill to get up to it.
“I thought you said you’ve never been there,” Arch responded in surprise.
“Nah, but my friends all have and they tell me. Kapunahala Stream gets you in from one of the trolley platforms, and past the guards at the bottom.”
“Let’s go,” Arch replied with a slight groan. He was not looking forward to what lay before them.
Arch had parked the car with its trunk facing the outside of the pier so they could get at its contents without anyone noticing. They worked in silence, packing ropes, pitons, bottled water and some spam and pressed rice musubi chunks that Chow sold for a buck a piece.
“You really think we need these?” Matisse asked, holding up a set of the brand new and frightfully expensive night vision goggles.
“Just put it in. I don’t know. We may need all of this stuff or none of it. We won’t be coming back down for supplies. That I do know. You said trollies, what trollies?”
“They had to carry all the stuff up there during the big war. They built concrete platforms on the lower peaks, and then strung trolley cables to the top.”
“They still there?” Arch asked, standing up straight to adjust the straps of his backpack.
“Nah, they rusted away, but we can rest at the platforms on the way up,” Matisse offered.
They drove to Windward Community College and then took the access road that ran along a tree line to the left.
There was no gate separating the college campus from the hospital grounds behind it. Matisse drove the car past the last big building where there was a small parking lot not far from the wide stream. He parked the Lincoln in the only available slot. It had a small sign indicating why it was vacant.
“Police and fire vehicles only,” Arch read, shaking his head in disgust.
“You a general,” Matisse explained, getting out of the car.
“I’m not a real general,” Arch replied, getting out of his side, knowing that the conversation was pointless, but continuing it anyway. “Even if I was a real general that wouldn’t mean I could park where it says police and fire only.”
“Almost same,” Matisse replied, as expected, while putting on his backpack. He tossed the car keys to Arch after hitting the locking button, and making the Lincoln chirp and briefly blink its lights.
“They’ll probably tow us,” Arch said, despondently, staring back at the car and punching the button once again just to be sure.
“It’s a rental,” Matisse shot back over his shoulder, as if that explained everything.
The hike in took almost an hour. The overgrown path was the easy part, except where it crossed the flowing stream. The rocks under the water were covered with some slippery slime or lichen. Matisse’s bare feet fared better than Arch’s Teva sandals. He only fell once on the hike to the bottom of the “small” hill that was the base of the first platform.
“Little hill?” Arch said, staring up at the steep, flora-covered mess in front of him.
“No problem,” Matisse answered with a laugh. He went right at the hill, until he was climbing upward on his hands and knees. “Mud good, it give us cover.”
“Yes,” Arch responded derisively, “we cover flat black with shiny brown mud. That’ll work for us.” Arch dug in behind Matisse, following him slowly up the incline. By grasping the deep-rooted tea leaf plants at the base, and then using them as handholds, they could move rather quickly by pulling hard to slide up through the red mud.
They reached the platform, after another hour of hard work. The concrete pad was covered with dried red mud. Arch rubbed some of the awful cloying stuff off on a nearby stanchion, realizing why the platform was so muddy. A lot of other people over the years had done the exact same thing. The base of the old trolley system was still there, but rusted away. The stairs coming up to, and then departing from, the platform were a surprise. They looked like regular basement stairs that might be found in a home, except they were fashioned from aluminum. Guardrails ran waist high on both sides of the stairs. Arch saw one immediate potential problem. The same slime and lichen that lined the rocks of the stream were all over the stairs. Both men dropped their packs. Matisse took out a bottle of water from his pack, and Arch grabbed his Leica binoculars. Arch studied the next platform, which was plainly visible by following the silver line of the stairs up to the next peak. Suddenly he saw rifle fire.
“Down,” he yelled at Matisse, ducking behind a small concrete wall himself. There was no sound of a passing bullet, only the distant hollow boom of the rifle going off in the distance.
Matisse still stood as before, looking over at Arch and then toward the other platform. “What was that?” he asked, squinting his eyes.
Arch jumped up, swept across the few feet of mud coated concrete and pulled the big man to the deck.
“That was a rifle shot, you idiot,” Arch breathed into Matisse’s left ear, shoving away at his side until they were both behind the protection provided by the low, but thick wall.
“Somebody’s shooting at us?” Matisse exclaimed, trying to raise his head to see what was going on. “Why? Who? Did you bring a gun? I didn’t bring a gun.”
“This isn’t some sort of shoot ‘em up mission. No, I didn’t bring a gun,” Arch replied angrily.
“It is now,” Matisse answered, in a much softer tone. “What do we do? Do we climb back down and get outta here?”
Arch thought for a moment. “No,” he said. “It’s those two idiots again. And what they’re doing tells us a lot. The other platform is about three hundred yards away. He could have hit me with any kind of decent rifle, but he didn’t. Somebody predicted we’d make this attempt, and they want to deny access. Also, the fact that it’s Kurt and Lorrie again tells us something. This whole thing’s so secret, they can’t have the Marines knowing anything. Because the Marines won’t shoot at American citizens on American territory without a damned good reason.”
“So what do we do?” Matisse asked.
Arch got to his feet, brushing away as much of the dry mud as he could, from his neat black outfit that was no longer neat or black. “We’re going to proceed up the steps as if those clowns don’t exist. They can shoot at us, but they can’t shoot us. Arch walked over to where the steps connecting the platforms began. Two more shots echoed through the canyon. But Arch merely laughed gently, taking Matisse by one hand to pull him up like he was a fallen child. “Come on, this was my business. I know these people. I know this game.”
Matisse slowly got to his feet, his hands visibly shaking. “What if they miss?” he asked, peering with unaided vision at the other platform.
“What do you mean? They are missing,” Arch said, ignoring the other platform and getting his pack readjusted to his back.
“I mean, they are missing on purpose, but what if they miss a miss?”
As Matisse kept talking he too began getting ready for their next leg of the climb.
“We may need a gun though, so I hope those two are around when we get up there,” Arch said, steering Matisse toward the first step.
“Why would we want that?” Matisse answered, taking both railings in his big meaty hands. .
“Because they’re idiots. We’ll take their guns.”
Matisse stood with his hands on the rails, unmoving. “I’m not sure about all this. They’re shooting at us, these steps don’t look safe, and I don’t know what’s up there.”
“Stop worrying. Most of the things you worry about in life never happen. And the things that do, happen in ways you could never have figured out ahead of time,” Arch said, pushing gently against Matisse’s broad back.
“Okay, but I don’t know,” Matisse answered. He then stepped forward, plunging ten feet down into a huge vat of red mud. The collapse of the aluminum stair, his downward slide, and even the impact of his body landing, was all nearly soundless. Only a rifle shot in the distance, playing over the top of the ceaseless trade winds, put an audible exclamation point on the event.
“Boss?” Matisse yelled up from the vat of mud, still stuck.
“Assholes,” Arch murmured, looking over to the other platform.
“It’s just another warning Matisse. I’m coming down to get you out.”
Arch climbed down, but by the time he reached him, Matisse was already out of the hole. “We just have to continue,” he told the Hawaiian, “and put up with their juvenile pranks.”
“Yeah, okay boss. But you go first. And we need a gun just to feel better. Then we can miss on purpose too. Or not.”
There were no more shots or weakened sections of stairs. It took another hour to reach the third platform. It was abandoned. Cigarette butts were scattered about, and Lorrie hadn’t policed his brass. Arch found a brass cartridge casing with .243 stamped into its base. Arch remembered something that had slightly bothered him when he saw the rifle go off near where they’d been standing. It looked vaguely familiar. Now he was certain.
The rifle was a Mannlicher-Schoenauer in .243. It was either the same rifle, or an exact replica, of the one he’d presented to Virginia on her fiftieth birthday. He knew, deep down in his heart, that he’d just been shot at by the same rifle he’d given the love of his life, less than a year earlier. He went numb.
“Where you go?” Matisse yelled in his ear, shaking him by one shoulder.
“What?” Arch answered, his voice flat and dead.
“Man, you were gone boss. You took a moment off there. Senior moment they call it. Maybe a stroke. You don’t look so good. I don’t think calling 911 will do much good. I don’t think they’ll come up here.”
“I’m fine. Fucking “A” fine. What do you want?”
“Boss, you fine, but somebody going to die. I hope it’s not me. It’s her again, isn’t it? Even all the way up here. Where do we go now?”
“The next platform,” Arch murmured. “It’s going to be dark before we get all the way to the top. It’s good we brought the NVGs.”
“And the spam. Chow’s musubi is almost as good as his pork hash. But I don’t like this night stuff. It’s creepy and we got some bad buys who don’t like us at all.”
“I didn’t know,” Arch said, his voice sounded vague and far away, even to him.
“About the night? About our enemies?” Matisse inquired, rubbing his head and looking down at the already darkening valley below.
“About the pork hash,” Arch answered. “I love pork hash but you can’t find any good stuff anymore.
Patty’s Kitchen closed. Now there’s a place in Minoa, but that’s it. I love pork hash, and the night. It’s going to be a good night.”
“Boss, you’re scaring me. What happened? Something happened? What we going to do?”
“Make camp,” Arch said. “Start a small fire. I like my spam and rice warm. We’ll climb at first light.”
“A fire?” Matisse repeated, his voice rising. “Everyone will see us. We’ll be sitting ducks, boss. Everyone will think we’re fools.”
“Fools?” Arch said, more to himself than Matisse. “Yes, they will. I’ve been a terrible fool. Tonight we’ll have hot spam and rice with a bit of Aloha soya, and tomorrow morning early, hell is coming to breakfast.