It Was 1993
by James Strauss
Arch searched the house. The dog paid close attention, but never moved from his sitting position in the small great room, as if his view of the sandy beach and pounding surf beyond was not to be surrendered. There was nobody in the house. The missing occupant was obviously a woman. There was nothing male about the place. Arch walked into the bedroom. The woman obviously hadn’t served in the Marine Corps. Her bed was unmade and junk was scattered around unkempt, although not soiled or dirty. The most unusual feature of the bedroom was a large candle, like a Catholic High Mass candle. It stood on a waist-high pedestal, just inside the door. The candle was lit and gave off a pleasing aroma. It was so massive (at least as large as a big male bicep in diameter) that it could burn many days before needing to be replaced. Arch thought the woman must not have gone far or she wouldn’t have left the candle burning in her absence. High mass candles could not be that easy to come by such a long way from any real civilization. Then he saw small used packets of tin foil. He picked up one burned stamp-sized packet. The aroma was so pungent he recoiled backwards a foot. Hash; possibly mixed with a bit of opium or heroin. The woman was a junkie. Arch placed the small foil square back with the rest, then stepped over to the bed to search under the two pillows. Nothing. The room, in fact the whole house, was as clean as he could discover without taking the whole place apart. He heard a slight sound behind him and turned, expecting the silent dog to have followed along out of curiosity. Arch saw the smooth curved side of the bronze colored candle just before it struck him in the forehead. Everything went black.
Arch saw the sky and it was beautiful and blue. Then his eyes opened and he realized that he wasn’t seeing the sky at all, instead he was seeing the hardwood floor extending a few feet under the bed to reveal more clutter. He was in the bedroom of the woman’s house, and he’d been hit so hard by the candle that bits lay strewn on the floor all around him. Arch moved just to prove he could. He was okay. His head hurt but he didn’t move to touch it, instead he pulled away, rolled over and pushed his back into the side of the mattress. “Shit,” he whispered to no one. Arch noted the remains of the candle, replaced on it’s pedestal, looking exactly like it should look after knocking somebody out. He massaged his damaged forehead with one hand. He had plenty of time. What ever happened when he got hit had happened, and what happened from then on was up to whoever hit him. Arch had nothing. No gun, no knife and no prospects. A top secret file was staining his belly red, and a small portable radio was jammed into his pocket. He had a wallet with a phony driver’s license, a passport in one of his names and two bad credit cards that didn’t match any of the other identification. The woman stepped into the doorway, then casually leaned against one frame with an expression on her face like she was quite used to knocking burglars out with her candle.
“Why are you here?” she asked, dragging a cigarette out from behind her, looking for all the world like an aging Lauren Bacall from a Bogie movie. Arch breathed to make sure he still could. He eased the massaging hand down and looked up at her.
“I don’t know,” Arch answered, sort of truthfully.
“You staying at the resort?” she asked, puffing on the cigarette for emphasis.
“Yes,” Arch replied. “I gave the old German a bad check and he threw me out.”
The woman laughed. “Half true. He wouldn’t throw you out. He’d just make you work. So why are you here?”
Arch lay pinned to the floor by a youngish (not so young) woman who was interrogating him like a suspect. Which he was. Somehow he had to talk his way out of this situation. He was down on the floor in a strange woman’s bedroom. A woman who, for whatever reason, obviously took drugs. A charge of breaking and entering, regardless of her front door being unlocked, was an open and shut case. No need for a trial. Into the local jail, staked and waiting for the black-clad predator from down on the beach to come and claim him.
“Don’t tell me,” the woman said, lighting a new cigarette with the embers of the old one not even half-smoked. She stuck the butt into the remains of the decimated candle. “The cops were looking for you.” She puffed and gave Arch a languid look. “What’s to stop me from calling them back?” she whispered, with a hard glint in her eyes.
Arch thought quickly. She would have no interest in any story he might tell. She didn’t seem to be one of those sensitive and caring women. He pointed. “That stuff on the table,” he said.
The woman glanced at her used tin foil squares. “Prick,” she replied, looking away. “What do you want?”
Arch slowly climbed off the hard floor to face her directly. “I need a place to lay low. There’s a guy down the beach who’s wants to say the last rites over me.”
The woman laughed, putting out her second cigarette. “You mean Raul? The good looking guy? Every day he stands on his lanai and dry fires a pistol with a big silencer on it. Who would do that?”
Thoughtlessly, Arch answered her question. “Real suppressers are too big to allow for sights. They’re point and shoot at close range, and it takes a lot of practice to hit a moving torso.” He knew he shouldn’t have answered without even waiting for the woman’s already skeptical expression to get worse. “What’s wrong with your dog? he asked, changing the subject. “He didn’t bark when I came in.”
“Harpo,” she replied, the dog came over to her to get his head petted. “He’s a Dingo. Dingo’s don’t bark, at least not this one.” Arch looked at the dog. The Dingo looked back, appearing to like him a whole lot more than the woman upon whom his life depended.
Arch moved to one corner of the strange woman’s bedroom and sat in one of those awful squishy pillow chairs for the 70s. Cyndi Lauper quietly belted out Time After Time on the radio. His head hurt, but the woman was giving him time. Time to come up with something. What did he have of value that he could he offer to the woman so she’d allow him to stay? He would willingly give anything because death was just outside the door. But he had nothing. He thought about Raul, the black wraith. His own history with the Agency had been as a team leader, not a knuckle dragger. But he no longer had a team. Raul no doubt did. If he was Raul, he would be assembling that team and running scenarios about what should be done once they found him. The woman went into the bathroom, turned on the shower and changed right where Arch could see her. Either she had no sense of personal privacy or she was crazy. Either one was a bad sign. Or maybe it was that he didn’t measure up to her notice as a man, or even as a human being. Also a bad sign. Raul was waiting. It was the smart move. His minions guarded the one road back to Hanalei. There was no other way. North led into the mountains where there was nothing. Arch had to get to Hanalei, and then Lihue, and then off the damned tiny island. Oahu had a million people. Oahu would do, but it was ninety-five rough ocean miles away. Raul would know all that. The local cops too, and if Raul was what Arch thought he was then the feds were coming in, as well.
He pulled the file out of his pants and opened to the page after the warning and identification. All he needed was to see one name half way down that page to know just how deep he was in. George Bush. He was in very, very deep. The file was marked Top Secret, but should have been Q Clearance, and a political Q at that. He closed the thing and stuck it back in his pants. He had more immediate problems. He could not overcome the woman. The players would be back to canvas. She had to answer the door. The dog would not stop them a second time. Arch had to have the place and he had to have her. Another song came on. Bonnie Tyler. Turn Around Bright Eyes; “Every now and then I fall apart.” No shit. What did the woman need? Taking downers to escape. Sleeping into oblivion, alone in her bed, in an abandoned place on a vacant beach. It came to him. She needed to live in a powder keg giving off sparks, if she was going to come back and live at all. It was all in the song, and all he had to sell her was A Total Eclipse of the Heart.
There was little question that only one thing in the world might save Arch. A thing that was as strewn with danger and delicacy as an aging minefield after a war was over and the chart of the mines had gone missing. The woman got out of the shower and dried off. He could see her through a crack in the bathroom door. She knew that. Women never show anything they do not intend a man to see, although they never admit to that uncanny awareness. Arch waited. Only the truth, and some proof of the truth, would serve, but he didn’t have a believable past. If Arch told the whole raw truth, he would be quickly assigned to the role of being either a conspiracy nut or something like a UFO whack job. A version of the truth would have to do.
“Well,” the woman said, her nicely shaped eyes as flat as stream bottom stones. Arch told her that he was ex-CIA. He told her that he’d been fired for cause, for the third time. He told her about the many countries he’d been to and little bitty cleaned-up versions of some missions he’d been on. He went on for half an hour without her saying a word. Midway through, she reached over, took the tinfoil in one hand and rolled what was hardened inside with her fingers. Then she consumed the small pea-sized ball. Arch talked some more. He pulled the file out, put it on the squishy chair and pulled up his shirt to show her some of his many torso scars, including some obvious bullet holes from the war, although he didn’t mention any war.
“So what?” the woman asked, her eyes starting to soften with the impact of whatever she’d taken. “CIA? How do you prove that one?”
Arch thought for a second, then turned and picked up the file. He put it on the bed next to her. “What’s in that file is a U.S. Title 18 federal felony,” he said, pointing at the red smeared top secret designation. He told the woman, who might save his life, that if he showed her the file and if she opened the file the act of doing so most probably would condemn them both to death.
Arch was a long way from that war in Vietnam, and then another song came over the radio. He was caught at the end of his story, finishing his demonstrations, with nothing to do but await her judgment about whether he was to live a bit longer, or die forever. And then the song came over her radio. He stood while she committed her part of the Chapter 115 felony called treason by beginning to read the file he’d only glanced at so far. Puff the Magic Dragon came through the small speaker, tinny, but clear as a bell. He was only a few miles from a place of life called Hanalei and then the damned song played about that town, but it wasn’t about the town for him. It was about a certain C-130 gunship called by that name, that came into the Ganoi Island strip he’d fought over. The ‘island’ was really just a piece of land between two rivers that ran from below firebase An Hoa up into a valley called the A-Shau. In the Nam. The fucking Vietnam. He’d called Puff himself on himself and she’d come raging in that October night. His company was decimated and all that was left to do was bring in the gunship that would put one bullet in every square foot of the muck he inhabited with what ammo was left. So they all got shot and shot again. And they all died, but not Arch. No he didn’t die; he got medals and a medical ticket home. The woman looked at Arch standing there with the scars and the stare. The fixed paralysis of going back to where there was no back, there was only ‘there’ and it all meant nothing. Then or now.
He watched her hardened expression soften, perhaps because of the drugs. She closed the file. Arch didn’t know what to say, although the song playing assured that he would say nothing until it was done. The hated damned song, and the beloved damned song. The CIA because he could not go back. There was no back, and the CIA had been a way to try. Different countries, different wars and different conflicts. Drawn like a stupid bug to the light. The sparkling light of other bugs dying but never him. C’mon. Why not him? The woman looked at him and saw. Not what he was. The woman whose name he didn’t know was drawn along with him from her ennui toward some unknown light. Arch knew that his story wasn’t believable but that he was likely being saved by Little Jackie Paper from a song that was no more real than he was.
Arch knew she was going to keep him. It was in her look, her body language, her closing of the dangerous top secret file to ask him inane ‘citizen’ questions. “So how many people have you killed?” she inquired.
Arch didn’t sigh with disappointment. He was used to that when dealing with the business and the regular citizenry. The question that could never be answered. Saying you have killed people only leads to identifying and ‘proving’ the statement. That’s also called an ‘admission’ in American legal circles. The fourth amendment of the Constitution does not protect anyone from making admissions. If you have killed someone you never ever tell anyone that you did or who that person might have been.
“I need to get to Lihue and fly off the island,” Arch responded.
“No you don’t, and you need to answer my questions,” she replied, laying back on the bed to enjoy the full blossoming of her comforting medications.
“I have to get off Kauai,” he repeated.
“Yes, well maybe so,” she answered, but you don’t have to go to Lihue. There’s a small company that flies little planes out of Princeville.”
He put his shirt back on and replaced the file up under it. He had to read what was in it and he needed to do so soon, but her comment about Princeville was good news. Princeville’s little airport was only a few miles beyond Hanalei. He’d forgotten about it. At a good run in daylight the airport could be reached in an hour. Except for the police station between him and there, and the other heavy weights coming in to make sure nothing like that happened.
“What’s it like to kill people?” the woman said, languidly. Thankfully the drugs were taking away her fear and trepidation, if not all of her reservations, about letting him stay.
“It’s exactly like whatever you’re running from. You drink rum or you do that stuff. You get away, but you always come back.”
Arch realized that his headache wasn’t just from being hit with the candle. He was hung over as hell, and needed rest. The file would have to wait. The world would have to wait. He moved around the bed and laid down next to the woman.
“I don’t remember the dog’s name,” he whispered, as the dog jumped up to lay at his feet. He closed his eyes, falling into sleep, wondering wh