DOWN IN THE VALLEY
By James Strauss
How in hell he came to be lying in cloying dismal mud at the base of an extinct Hawaiian volcano eluded Arch Patton. He just lay there, trying to catch his breath, knowing that the softness of the deep red earth was a death trap but not really having the energy to do much about it. He was sixty. Just days south of it. He didn’t look sixty. That thought made him laugh, nearly aloud. If anyone were to see him in his current condition then looking sixty would be a major compliment.
The stream running right by him was clear and sparking bright. Arch diverted some of it with one hand, letting the water cascade over his upturned face, while he tried to rub what he could of himself clean with the other. Very gently he rolled out into the main current, the water running about six inches deep. He realized that his fall had not injured him badly. The soft mud had saved him, but it was nearly impossible to get it off once it attached itself to you. Red dirt, they called the stuff on Oahu. Some company even made clothing with the mud being used as a dye. “Awful red,” Arch had called the pieces on display at a retail outlet across the island on Kalakaua Avenue.
He’d retired ten years ago before coming to be lying alone in the mud. Retired from being a field operations specialist. A real spy. A spy who had to get in and get out with almost no help, and accomplish missions which were too bizarre to be written into movie or television scripts. Spying wasn’t a believable occupation. Not in the culture of modern America. So he portrayed himself as a retired professor, which he resembled much more than the public’s idea of a spy.
Arch had nothing to show for his work. A small retirement from the Agency. A family, strewn across the landscape of his life, broken and dysfunctional. It didn’t often bother him. But laying in the flowing stream, with cool mountain water washing over him for some reason caused him to think of his entire life and feel a deep sense of regret. In the words of some kid he’d overheard at an airport talking to another kid: “You have no life.” Arch was left with no real life, and he knew it.
Agonizing a bit, he slowly sat up in the middle of the stream. The water was infusing him with life. He tried parts of his body. No broken bones. No cartilage not working, that he could tell. Only a feeling of immense fatigue. He’d been walking on the trail above only moments before, and now he was stuck in the stream at the bottom of a deep ravine.
“With not a friend in the world,” he murmured to himself while twisting back to look upstream for the first time. What he saw surprised him to the point of working to breaking himself loose from the muddy bottom of the stream. With a long sucking sound, he pried himself out. A brown streak flowed downstream, as the water began to fill in the depression he vacated.
There was a body in the stream, not twenty yards from where Arch came to crouch, with his hands and
knees still plunged into the wet red dirt of the bank. With deep rattling breaths coming from his lungs, he began to crawl on hands and knees, moving away from the bank again and out into the center of the gurgling water. There was no mud in the clear water coming down from the mountain, but the current worked against making rapid forward progress. It took him ten long minutes to reach the still body.
Arch rose up to his feet, the water knee deep. He shakily gazed down at the prone form. A man lay before him on his back in the cocooning mud near the bank totally wrapped in gray duct tape. Even the man’s eyes and mouth were taped over. The only way to tell that the body was of a male at all was by the lack of any swelling on its chest area. Arch couldn’t judge if the body was alive or dead. He reached down with his right hand, dropping to one knee and went to work on one small corner of tape covering the body’s mouth before pulling back sharply.
A plaintive croak came through the small hole the removal of the tape had allowed, and then some weak words.
“Help me,” a male voice pleaded, the voice almost too raspy to understand.
Arch instantly recognized the voice. It had a distinctive nasal twang to it. Irritating. Just like the man it belonged to. Nathan Makaha Matisse. A man who’d almost written out his own death warrant by attempting to extort money from the United States Government for information that would have damaged that same government.
Moments earlier, in a clearing located somewhere above them, and following a very unsatisfactory conversation, Arch had told his associates to simply shoot the offensive idiot and leave his body in the brush for his relatives, or whomever, to find.
But here was Matisse, lying in the same stream bed as Arch, and begging for help.
Slowly, Arch peeled the tape from the man’s eyes and ears.
“You’re supposed to up there with a few bullet holes in you, so what are you doing down here?” Arch asked, tossing the small ball of used tape and watching it bob and float as it made its way downstream.
“Your friends thought it would be better to roll me down here to die slowly. Help me.” Matisse struggled against the tape securing the rest of his body.
“Why should I help you?” Arch asked, trying to clean the red mud from his coated limbs. He noted that one of his Teva sandals was missing.
“Because you don’t have a friend in this world. I’ll be your friend,” Matisse responded.
Arch stared at the man in surprise, and then was overcome by a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Finally, after more than half a minute he regained his aplomb.
“ Just what makes you think that some lowlife scum like you, threatening the same government I’ve worked for so long and well, could ever be a friend of mine? I told those guys to shoot you,” Arch finished.
“I forgive you,” Matisse responded, “and besides, that was before we ended up in this mess. Why are you down here?”
Arch looked down at the wriggling creature before him, and then came to a decision. He began to pull the tape from the man’s body one strip after another. He said nothing until the sticky cloying operation was complete.
“I don’t know what happened,” he admitted to Matisse in a low voice, before pulling himself back up and out of the water. He waded over to sit on a nearby rock.
“You’ve got blood on the side of your head,” Matisse said, pointing, as he struggled in the current to bring feeling back into his limbs.
Arch touched the spot Matisse had pointed at, and then jerked his head back in pain.
“Maybe your friends hit you over the head and dumped you down here with me,” Matisse offered, wading through the shallow flow of water and settling atop a different rock not far away.
“Not bloody likely,” Arch mused, more to himself than to Matisse. Patton’s partner had stayed at the bottom of the trail, to await his return. A strike team of pro operatives had preceded him onsite to handle the rough work when Arch got to the location. They had all been strangers to him. But they were Agency operations people. There was absolutely no chance that a whole strike team, on American soil, was going to go rogue enough to do in a fellow agent, retired or otherwise. It just didn’t happen that way no matter how Hollywood loved to portray it.
“Then what are you doing here?” Matisse wheedled, in his irritating nasal tone.
“What I’m doing here is why you’re out of that tape, and likely to live. I don’t know. Maybe I fell up there, hit my head, and rolled down the hill. I can’t remember a damn thing.”
“Not bloody likely,” Matisse repeated Arch’s words, trying to imitate his voice. He waited for a brief moment before inquiring further, “You’d remember falling at the very least. Do you?”
Arch thought about his last memory from above. He’d walked away to leave the wet work to the team. His job was done. He’d made the decision, and then given the orders. The last thing he recalled was beginning the return trip back down to where Frank, his partner, waited.
“No,” Arch replied. “Something hit me on the head I guess, and then down I came.”
“Ah, the cold blooded killer gets taken out.” Matisse concluded, betting to his feet.
“Not in your case,” Arch cut him off. “I told them to shoot you a few times, not kill you. Those are two different things. Bleeding, with a few holes added to your ugly local carcass, would have been convincing enough. I wouldn’t have told you to leave that Bellow’s thing alone if I was going to order you dead, if you recall.”
Without further comment, both men moved and began working their way down the stream bed, staying in the current to avoid becoming trapped in the mud that lined both sides of the moving water.
“Where we going?” Matisse asked, after awhile.
“Down in the valley. My partner’s waiting with a car,” Arch replied.
“Down in the valley, the valley so low, hang your head over, hear the wind blow…” sang Matisse, in a voice that was so deep and pure that Arch stopped in his tracks.
“What?” Matisse asked, stopping his performance. They stood looking at one another.
“That was beautiful. You have a great voice,” Arch said, his tone one of complete surprise.
“Nah, all Hawaiian’s can sing. Haole’s, like you, have no voice,” Matisse responded.
They continued working their way down the valley together.
“Madonna’s a Haole, and she can sing,” Arch noted, after a few minutes.
“Life is a mystery,” Matisse sang the beginning words to Madonna’s song, Like a Prayer, but then stopped and went back to singing “Down in the Valley”, while they waded on. Arch said nothing further until they reached an old concrete bridge running over the stream.
With Arch in the lead, both climbed the steep slope up to the road.
“What those Marines are doing in Sherwood Forest can’t go on. People are going to die. My people,” Matisse said, behind him.
“Sherwood Forest?” Patton asked, getting more of the red mud on himself as he climbed, and trying to shake it off while he went.
“Take from the rich, give to the poor. You call it Bellows Air Force Base.” There’s a lot of theft from all those tourist and military dependents vehicles going on there all the time.
“The poor being you local yokels and us Haole’s being the rich, I suppose,” Arch stated, his tone one of resignation. “And it’s not your problem. That’s a U.S. military base. They can do what they want there. It’s U.S. government property.”
“Radiation… there is radiation coming from one of those canals, going right into our ocean,” Matisse answered his voice low and filled with emotion.
Arch stopped climbing. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
“I took one of those Geiger counter things to the beach,” Matisse responded. “Got it off eBay. Some of my friends turned red and got sick for a bit so I check out what the Internet said about stuff like that. Radiation made the Geiger counter sound like a chain saw. I know I can’t stop the government from doing what they’re doing. I just thought I could get some money because I know.” Matisse stared into Arch’s enlarged eyes when he stopped talking.
Arch sat down on the slope just down from the road. “Jesus Christ,” he said, more to himself than the man he was with.
“You didn’t know?” Matisse asked his voice one of surprise.
“No,” Arch forced out. “I was raised on that beach. I camped there as an eagle scout when I was a kid. God damn it, there’s no reason for anybody to have nuclear by-products there. The Marines use it for training, and that’s all. Geiger counter or no Geiger counter I’m not sure I believe you.”
“Why they build that fence on the inside of the road then?” Matisse asked. “And why they build a road inside that fence and patrol it with those M-Rap trucks?”
Arch rubbed his face, staying away from the painful part by his ear. The Marines had built a very well made security fence with wire at the top. He’d seen it himself. Local citizens were allowed inside Bellows to use the beach on weekends, but they could no longer park along most of the road. Huge rocks had been moved in to keep them from parking on the sand, as they had before. And what were the armored trucks there for, he wondered. And he’d seen the posted signs. The real high threat signs, that warned of the fatal harm that might be applied for trespassing. He had seen the same signs only once before in a place called Los Alamos, New Mexico. Those signs had been on the interior fences protecting nuclear tech areas.
“We take our kids there to swim,” Matisse said, “and so do some of the Haole’s who swim there.”
“Still, there’s just no way that there could be anything that would allow for radiation to be in the water. No way,” Arch concluded, emphatically.
“Then what are you doing here? You come from mainland to see me? You bring those nasty people with you? To shoot me? How I become so famous? All that for me?” Matisse asked, before laughing.
Arch went back to climbing until he reached the top.
“No car. Frank’s not there. Frank would not leave. Something’s not right,” he said, just as a man wielding a large branch broke from the nearby bracken. Arch ducked under the swinging chunk of wood, feeling compressed air whistle past his damaged head. He heard Matisse’s yell behind him.
“No, Ahi, he’s my friend. Don’t hit him again,” Matisse yelled.
“Again?” Arch asked up from his prone position on the ground.
“Ahi’s my brother. He just protecting me,” Matisse replied, taking Ahi’s branch and heaving it back into the valley.
“Hello,” Arch offered, making no move to shake the big Hawaiian’s hand.
“Bro,” the man responded, smiling a great white-toothed smile, as if hadn’t just tried to take Arch’s head off at the shoulders.
“I gotta car, but we have to go back over the ridge to get to it,” Matisse said. “I parked up by the old abandoned reservoir. It’s a Sunday car, only for me and my friends.” He laughed lightly, as they walked, before going back to singing Down in the Valley. Ahi accompanied him in singing the song and walking with him side by side while Arch trailed both men wondering if he was not on the set of some alien horror movie made to resemble a bad sitcom.
“Why’d you come back to the island?” Matisse asked, when they broke from their duet.
“Back? How’d you know I was ever here before?” Arch answered.
“You Island Boy. Kamaaina. You talk the pidgin when you not paying attention.”
Arch frowned. He hated pidgin English. “Whasamattayou?” came instantly to his mind. Stupid talk from his childhood days in Waikiki.
“A woman,” Arch finally stated, blurting out the truth as lying just didn’t seem to matter under the circumstances. The Hawaiians said nothing, so he went on. “Her name’s Virginia. I worked with her years back in South America, when were both fully active in the field. We had a bad go of it with some terrible people. They took out her ankle. Couldn’t climb out and I saved her.”
“Oh please,” Matisse laughed and Ahi joined in. “You saved her and then you sleep with this Haole sista?”
Arch bit his lip. He hated that kind of talk. And he really hated that they had so quickly pegged his former relationship with Virginia. His one dalliance from his marital vows, even if the dalliance had been multiply performed across ten countries of the world. Virginia had not been the cause of his divorce. Poor selection in the beginning had been the cause, which his wife had proven by running off with another woman when the going got tough. Arch had not and could not ever come to terms with that part of his loss.
“Yes,” Arch answered, not caring what the two locals knew. He’d come back for Virginia and she’d sent him on this seemingly simple errand. They’d planned the operation at the Officers Club on Kaneohe Marine Base so that was where he was bound. Virginia would have some understanding of what had happened. Virginia was as solid as rock but more beautiful and softer than any rock could hope to be. She remained single approaching fifty years in age. Arch liked to think that she’d been waiting for him over the past ten years of his agonizing and difficult divorce.
“You been set up brudda,” Matisse intoned. “And dat sista is the setup queen.”
Patton crossed the top of the ridge behind the two locals. His breath came in pants, not from the difficulty of the climb but because of his roiling emotions. It simply wasn’t possible.
But why had Frank abandoned him? A partner, even a former partner never does that. If he hadn’t, at least the car would have been there. Somewhere and for some reason orders had been handed down, guiding the mission into areas
Arch hadn’t been filled in on. Somehow he had become collateral damage on a mission he was supposed to be in charge of. But he hadn’t been in charge of at all. He should have understood that from reflecting on his own retired status. A mission commander was always active and working real time in operations. A team leader was always in constant touch with some operational control, no matter how ancillary or distant.
Arch hadn’t been in contact with anyone except Virginia and Frank, and that, following the planning phase, had been minimal.