DOWN IN THE VALLEY
By James Strauss
The Humvee proved to be empty, an enlisted Marine wearing no rank exiting the vehicle as Matisse and Arch got in. The heavy armored door slammed shut and the driver took off. There was nobody else in the Humvee.
Arch looked through the bulletproof glass, as they four-wheeled over the packed pine needles to the road. The scenery was surreal to him. It was exactly the same and in exactly the same small area he’d camped with his Boy Scout troop so many years before. He’d been afraid of snakes and nobody could tell him that there were no snakes in the Hawaiian Islands. Only the coming of the completely sewn in canvas bottoms to scout tents, and zippered mosquito nets, had allowed him to sleep the nights through without constantly waking to check for slithering monsters. The only benefit of having such an irrational fear had paid him was that he alone, other than Torres, the scoutmaster, had had his own tent.
“General’s quarters down at the end of the base?” Arch inquired of the driver, not necessarily believing the company commander back at the big hovercraft.
“Sir,” was all the Marine replied, his voice cut off and terse, as if the last thing he wanted was any dialogue with the two he was carrying in the back seat.
“Why all the guns facing out back there?” Matisse asked Arch. “What were they guarding us from? Is somebody other than them after us, or what?”
“Intimidation,” Arch answered, with a knowing smile. “Didn’t you feel it? A display of power and force. Shock and awe. Indirect threats are sometimes much more effective than direct threats. Didn’t phase you a bit though, did it?”
“Nah,” Matisse replied, softly. “What’s going to happen now?”
“Whatever they want to happen. I guess it was that way from the start but missions never go the way they’re supposed to so I’m counting on some serendipity to help.”
“Serendipity? That doesn’t sound so good,” Matisse said.
The Humvee was doing no more than fifteen miles an hour so the trip took more than just the few minutes it would have taken if they’d been making any kind of reasonable speed. Arch thought they might be experiencing more intimidation but he wasn’t sure. The whole thing, whatever it was, just didn’t seem to have that kind of advance planning or experienced players at work. The Marines landing from the hovercraft had been regular Marines except for their lack of rank markings. It just didn’t seem that Arch and Matisse, no matter what they might do, could be important enough to spend much time or assets over.
The Humvee didn’t slow for the gate guards, much less stop. The guards didn’t wave or acknowledge the vehicle’s passing except to stare as it went by. The base had changed. There were no off duty personnel swimming, getting gas at the on base station or even hanging about the many small rental cabins maintained by the Air Force for any active duty or retired military personnel who might want to avoid the outrageous room rates charged in Waikiki. The road ended at the base of a rather laid back looking home constructed almost entirely of fitted black lava rocks held together by mixed concrete, like many of the local walls to be found around all the islands. The Marine stopped the vehicle and waited. Matisse and Arch climbed out. The Humvee departed with both rear doors swinging shut due to the acceleration force of the departing vehicle. The Marine driver was obviously returning to his duty station at a much higher rate of speed than he’d used to deliver his charges.
“I guess we knock?” Matisse asked, approaching the single barred gate set deeply into the stone. There was a small courtyard beyond the bars but no one there.
“Enter,” a tinny voice said, emitted by a small speaker set at head height by the edge of gate. The door buzzed open a few inches.
“Cool,” Matisse said, and then pushed the gate fully open.
Arch looked around for a rock to prop the door open. There were no loose rocks so he grabbed a nearby bench and put it in the gap so the door couldn’t close after them.
They climbed some steps, and then turned a corner and had to climb some more. Arch didn’t slow or turn when he heard the gate behind them snap shut with a loud click. Evidently there were personnel somewhere unseen in the courtyard, probably stationed there for the specific purpose of making sure whoever came in was supposed to be in and whoever was in was staying until dismissed. There would be no quick rush out of the residence to make an escape, but then Arch hadn’t expected any.
Arch knocked on the Koa wood door with his undamaged right hand. Koa was so rich, rare and expensive it would only have been used years earlier for something as plain as a door leading into a military officer’s cottage. The door opened but no one appeared to have opened it. Arch stepped in with Matisse crowding behind him. Arch looked behind the door but there was nobody there or anywhere in the great room. He looked back at the door latch as he swung it closed. Electrically operated. The door clicked shut with a slight but distinctive electrical sound.
The general’s visiting quarters were as Arch had seen at other bases but much more opulent, and there was certainly no other set of quarters with a similar view of such tropical magnificence. One set of great room windows faced the other windward side of the island, taking in the full view of Lanakai, all the way to where Kaneohe Marine Base lay if you knew it was there. The other wall of windows gave a full view down Bellows Beach all the way past Waimanaolo to Makapuu Point where an old lighthouse now attracted photographers and tourists of all kinds. Rabbit Island sat placidly offshore, brilliantly lit up by the morning sun. The island was too far away to note any activity or the presence of any of the Hawaiians occupying it.
The general’s view was like no other on Oahu.
A Marine Officer appeared from around a hidden corner near the back of the room. He was a captain, wearing a Class B uniform, tropical attire (short sleeve khaki shirt with green trousers without stripe), sporting a leather belt with cross belt running over his shoulder. A pistol holster swung gently from the belt as he walked. Because he was under arms he also wore a piss cutter green cover (narrow hat running from forehead to the back of his neck). He carried a file over to a broad table near the window overlooking the Lanakai facing side of the home. He set the folder down and then looked up, as if noticing Arch and Matisse for the first time.
“Gentlemen, I’m captain Star and I’m the general’s aide. The general will see you forthwith. I will ask you not to touch the materials I’m leaving for his attention as I make my own exit.” The aide walked out of the room the way he’d walked in. Arch noted the Corfam (crummy artificially polished black shoes instead of the real spit shined ones) with nearly silent rubber soles and the man’s West Point ring that had flashed in the early morning sun.
“Stuffy prick, with the name star to go with the general’s, no doubt,” Arch murmured, walking toward the table.
“Haole prick,” Matisse whispered at about the same time. “Sorry,” he followed up with to Arch, almost immediately.
“For which part?” Arch returned, absently, as he took in the NSA folder with his own name on it. He stood staring down at the half-inch thick file, trying to decide whether to open it or not. He had little doubt that he and Matisse were under full surveillance but what did it matter at that point.
A man’s deep voice spoke before his hand could reach the table.
“Gentlemen,” the voice said. Matisse and Arch turned as one.
A tall, nearly gaunt man of middle age walked toward them. He wore the same uniform as his aide but without the armament, belt or cover. The only mark of his rank was a single gold star pinned to the exact center of his khaki shirt collar tips. The front pleats running up and down each side of the shirt looked so sharp they could cut skin if not handled gently. He also wore a West Point ring, although where the captain’s had been gold with black onyx, Point colors, the general’s was white gold with a huge diamond in the center.
He sat down without saying anything else and opened the file to its first page, which had the word SECRET slanted across it in large red letters.
“General DeWare, I presume,” Arch said, taking a seat across from the Marine Officer. Matisse leaned against the back of a couch just behind him.
“And who or what you are is, apparently, not to be known, unless you are going to be kind enough to enlighten me,” the general said, beginning to leaf through the NSA file. Arch could not help but stare. He’d never seen a real honest to God NSA file in his career, much less his own file. How a hard copy file from that secretive agency came to be in the general’s possession all the way out on Oahu was a complete mystery to him, but it again caused him to think that something vitally serious was going on that nobody outside the mission had any clue about.
“You’re a general yourself,” DeWare said, “or maybe not. You’ve been a lot of Marine Corps ranks, I note. In fact, you were a major before you were a captain, and that’s not really possible…but here it is. No Command and Staff College. How can you be a general without that? You can’t, but here it is and here you are.” DeWare closed the file. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose. What you, and your local trash friend, are is trouble.”
“Trouble?” Arch blurted out. “You think you’re the only one here sleeping with Virginia Westray? Talk about trouble.”
The general simply stared across the table, first at Arch and than at Matisse. His face, then his whole head, turned a beet red and his right hand began to tremble slightly.
The general’s movement reminded Arch of the pain in his own hand. Without saying anything further he slipped his left hand into his pocket, took out a few Ibuprofen tablets and popped them into his mouth. He looked up at the general. Mr. Perfect came to his mind. The man was totally in the moment and wearing everything, including his role, to perfection. General Perfect.
“Get out and stay out,” the perfect general said, his voice low, his words delivered with a near hiss. “You get involved in this and nobody will be able to save you. You were called in to do something and you did it. Now go home. Haiku has nothing to do with you, and as far as Virginia is concerned, and we have talked about you, you are nothing more or less than an aged child, and not a good child at that.” General DeWare stood up, put Arch’s file under his right arm and started to walk toward the back of the room.
“You’ve got Virginia tied up in something she’s not ready for and you need toet her go if you care about her,” Arch said to the general’s back, knowing the words were probably futile.
“You’re out of here. These men will take you back to town. Sit there, drink there, stay there and then fly out. If your local scum friend goes back to Rabbit Island he’ll be snuffed out like his pals, never to see the light of day again.” General DeWare stopped and turned, “and you general, major, warrant officer or whatever the hell you are, gave us all we need to make that happen.”
Two men came around the panel’s edge, as the general disappeared. “Hey guys,” one of the men said, waving a Taser toward them. Lorrie and Kurt were back.
Arch stood up and backed toward Matisse until his back was against the couch too.
“Oh, don’t look so surprised, we’re in and you’re out,” Lorrie noted. “Simple, really. Kurt here would love to get even for his hand. He gestured toward his injured companion.
“Get even, get even?” Arch asked, holding up his bandaged hand.
“He nailed my hand first.
You broke bones,” Lorrie noted. “You spilt blood. There was supposed to be no blood, if you will recall overhearing. But never mind. We’re not here about that. We’re here to escort you to your carriage, that more resembles a pumpkin than a carriage.” Lorrie motioned with the Taser. Kurt glared but said nothing, his damaged hand splayed and stretched with wires held together using little nuts and bolts. Lorrie approached Arch and Matisse until he was standing only a few feet away. Kurt held back, his good hand noticeably positioned behind his back. Suddenly, Lorrie smashed the Taser down on Arch’s injured hand that lay resting gently on the couch back.
Arch almost crumpled to the floor in pain, letting out a strangled moan. He pulled the hand close to his body, feeling the bleeding begin to seep through the light bandage. He struggled to control himself as Kurt spoke for the first time.
“How’s that feel, Mr. hot-shot tough-guy international man of mystery?”
Matisse grabbed Arch around the shoulders and eased him back the way they’d come. Sitting on the other side of the open gate at the bottom of the final set of steps was Matisse’s Pontiac.
“Found this pumpkin down the way a bit, and thought you’d be more at home than the Caddy,” Lorrie said, standing well in front of Kurt just back from the gate. “Hope to see you soon. Kurt doesn’t talk much but he’ll be most happy to see you if you turn up again.”
Arch eased slowly into the front seat of the Bonneville and then went to work trying to re-position the bloody bandages wrapped around his damaged hand.
“Moana. Head for the Moana,” Arch ordered Matisse, barely able to speak.
“You think you going to bring that Haole woman to the Moana?” Matisse asked. “I know what you thinking. You going to trust her again? Those guys who keep hurting you work for your Agency. For her. Not for the scarecrow general. I don’t think she be much of a good woman, and you don’t have that many hands.”
Arch finished working on his hand before he responded. “You can drop the local Wahini stuff. You don’t know a thing about Virginia, or me for that matter. I don’t want some woman that takes my crap all the time. I want intellect, independence and some kind of equal partner. Virginia has always stood up for me, not matter how she seems to act or what she says. Somehow, she works on my best behalf even when it looks like she isn’t.”
Matisse looked over at Arch for too long to be driving the way he was. “You in love with that woman. You got it bad. Shaka Bra. She’s dangerous. I’m afraid of her and I haven’t even met her. But you my Bra and I back my Bra.”
They drove without speaking to downtown Waikiki. Matisse put some oldies station on the ancient single speaker radio. “Sherry, Sherry baby, Sherry can you come out tonight…” played with surprising strength, with Frankie Valli belting it out and the cavernous car interior with the top up magnifying his voice. Matisse parked free at the Royal Hawaiian, not far from the Moana, where the doorman was part of his sovereignty group. The hotel was painted an awful pink but the interior breathed with a quiet old island style of quiet class as they walked through the lobby.
Kalakaua, the main drag through Waikiki was packed, but then it was always packed unless it was three in the morning. They walked straight through the Royal and shopping complex toward the Moana. What was left of the International Market Place was their first destination just across from the Moana. About every product in the jammed space was sold from wheeled sales carts. It was like a hugely wide alley in downtown Hong Kong. And every cart sold the same tourist junk, from phony jade to Zippo lighters and cheap bangle bracelets. An old drug store still functioned, with only Japanese characters to give away the fact that it dispensed anything but the other local crap around it. Arch loaded up on bandages and used two hundred in cash to convince the old man behind the counter to give him some codeine powder; the kind Japanese people could buy for a song in Tokyo without any doctor’s permission.
Matisse guarded the door to a lobby bathroom while Arch went inside to do the best he could on his hand with the materials they’d purchased. Finally, he had to call the Hawaiian in because he couldn’t wrap the hand effectively without help.
“Let’s go get a drink,” Arch said, wading through the crowd with Matisse trailing behind, carrying the bag with the rest of the medical supplies. The Moana had been redone some years back. They walked through the elegant lobby and out onto the back veranda. Arch stared up at the huge banyan tree that had been a fixture of wonder ever since his childhood. At one time there’d been a brass plaque indicating that Robert Lewis Stevenson had penned Treasure Island under it but no one could recall what happened to the plaque or whether what was written on it was true.
They got lucky and found an empty table near the sand. The small gentle waves of Waikiki Beach lapped pleasantly nearby. Arch looked at the bar Pupu menu but didn’t get far before one word came back to his mind. A waiter came over and Arch ordered two Mai Tai drinks. He knew they’d cost almost twenty bucks apiece but he intended to dust his own liberally with the codeine powder.
“Ha’iku,” Arch said, off a sudden. “Our perfect general mentioned Haiku. What could Haiku be?” Arch said the words aloud, more to himself than to Matisse.
“Haiku Plantations or Haiku Gardens on the other side,” Matisse answered, checking out the PuPu menu for himself. Then he stopped and put the menu slowly down. “Hai’ku Stairway,” he said slowly, his tone low and serious.
“What’s Ha’iku Stairway?” Arch asked, when Matisse failed to supply anymore.
“It’s called the Stairway to Heaven, but it’s not. It’s the Stairway to Hell.” Matisse answered, as he slid his eyes over to look at Arch’s damaged hand.