“Are you with someone?” A young man asked Kumai.
Even though he wore reading glasses that were covered in fingerprints and had a pen protector in his shirt pocket, she got the sense that he was the host here at Choo’s Bar.
“No. It’s just me.” She said.
“Great!” he chirped.
“I suppose. Depends who you ask.” She joked.
He didn’t smile. Instead he gave her a sideways glance and his expression changed to disappointed. He turned his gaze to the ocean, said, “Please excuse me,” and walked away.
Kumai stood where she was, confused. Observing the milieu didn’t help her to understand who were couples, who were servers and who was here alone like she was. Kane was nowhere in sight, the one person she thought she would be sure to know in this new place. She gave up on connecting with anyone and looked for a place to sit.
She stopped first at the bar, which got her three offers to buy her a drink. She declined each offer, feeling like there was a secret message she wasn’t understanding. Her radar switched to high alert. To aid her vigilance, she ordered a lilikoi iced tea instead of anything with alcohol.
The bartender plunked down her beverage like she was ordering the kid meal.
“Could I get an umbrella in it?” She asked.
The bartender scowled at her.
Another customer, this time a woman, put down a couple of dollars and said, “Give the woman her umbrella.”
“Um, thanks.” Kumai said.
The woman was tall with long red hair. She seemed to have a hint of freckles which made her look girlish. Kumai could imagine them being friends. Then the woman winked at her, sat down on the coconut stump stool, and gazed at Kumai.
Kumai looked to the bartender who glowered at her, stuffed an umbrella stick into a wedge of lemon, and plopped the assemblage on her glass rim.
“Thanks again.” Kumai said to the woman, raised her glass, and walked away. She found an empty Adirondack chair facing the edge of the beach. She kicked off her shoes and put her feet in the sand. An invisible boundary between bar and beach prevented her from taking the glass of tea to the water and dipping in her toes.
The beige sand felt silky as body powder, not sharp as the usual grains of mineral. Families walked by on the beach, looked at the menu posted on the carved hula girl podium, checked out the crowd, and moved on.
A small table beside Kumai’s beach chair held a tented menu. She reached for it just as a young Polynesian man walked over in his laulau and lit the hurricane candle even though it was still day.
“Client or patron?” He asked.
“Patron?” Kumai answered, having no idea what he had just asked her. “I’m just here to relax.”
“Perfect.” He purred.
The way he said it, Kumai guessed that he could roll his r’s.
“If I want pupus…” Kumai trailed off, afraid that maybe he wasn’t a server here.
“Just let me know.” He said. “Especially if there’s a specific way that you like to relax. I’d like to help you do that.”
His smile made Kumai look around for someone to explain this place to her. She couldn’t decide if he was being inappropriate or she was being prudish. She was also looking for any witnesses, in case he made claims that she had hit on him. He didn’t seem to be of legal age to be serving drinks, or innuendos.
The menu offered the usual array of coconut shrimp, poke, kalua pork sliders, and sashimi, all at three times the price they would be in town. Maybe Bonnie would have some supper leftovers available when Kumai got home. Bonnie… Kumai checked her phone to see if she could give the all clear.
She had a text from Peter Yelley, “Disarmed. Call me.”
Kumai sighed. She punched the call button and got Peter’s voicmail. She said, “I’m calling you, as instructed. Thanks for not blowing up my house.” A chill ran over her to realize how serious this had become.
She texted Bonnie, “All clear at home. Please use caution as there may be some unexpected dangers. Just stay alert.”
Someone was trying to kill her. Did she warn her friends? Already both Tom and Bonnie had been at risk. At this very moment, she was breaking the gunfighter’s rule by sitting with her back to the “room.” She put away her phone, put on her shoes, and walked to the back edge of the L on the bar. The only thing behind her was the stage for slack-key performers and hula dancers.
The bartender raised his eyes to her. She said, “Poke please.”
He nodded and walked away. Her phone buzzed. It was a reply from Bonnie, simply, “Got it.”
But did Bonnie get it? How much should Kumai say? She really needed to talk to Peter. She started to dial him again when she saw Susan Winters enter Choo’s. Kumai watched as her client looked around, chose a seat in the center of the open lanai, and ordered from the same young man who had approached Kumai. There didn’t seem to be any awkwardness for Susan. Several men walked over to her, chatted, and then left.
“So I hear you’re looking for something.” The bartender said to Kumai, jolting her out of observing Susan. “Which sort of relaxation is your style?”
“My style?” Kumai asked.
“Yeah, you know. I’ve seen you observing several of the women here. Does that interest you?” He asked.
“Yes, I guess so. I’m curious why they are all wearing so much makeup. And why have they chosen to wear clothes that are uncomfortable to wear in the tropics. I mean really, polyester and spandex?” Kumai answered.
The bartender burst out laughing. “What would you like them to wear?” He asked.
“Huh?” Kumai asked. “Whatever they want to wear. I just can’t imagine it would be hefty trashbags, rubberbands, or heels that could arm spearguns.”
“More of a natural look, then?” He prompted.
“I suppose so. If that’s what they wanted. I mean, really, does anyone here look very comfortable?” She asked.
“That woman who just came in seems pretty comfortable with herself.” He observed Susan.
“She can afford to be.” Kumai said softly. Susan was wearing a sun dress that looked like a thread-bare patchwork quilt. No doubt it was trending fashion. In Hawaii, it would be a poor-person’s dress.
“You know her?” He asked.
“So why isn’t she for you?” He asked.
I’m having the weirdest conversations at this place. “She is for me, actually.” Kumai said, leaving it at that.
“Well, okay then.” The bartender said and returned to pouring drinks.
Susan didn’t look as comfortable as the bartender seemed to think she was. Maybe that was because Kumai knew her a little and could see that Susan was assessing this place just as Kumai had tried to do. Kumai wished she could put her finger on what seemed so odd about Choo’s. She flailed around for a word to name the atmosphere, and the best she could do was predatory, with everyone circling like they were in a shark tank.
Maybe dating had gotten more bizarre in the past few years. If so, she’d have to thank Bradon for keeping her out of the deep end of this pool. She sighed and sipped her sweating glass of tea, wondering whether to go say hello to Susan or let her have her peace.
“Ms. Kaimana?” A man’s voice asked from a corner near her.
She looked over to see the familiar face from the Energy Lab sitting at a table with two young Asian women. “Dr. Ching.” She said. “It’s nice to see you again.”
He held up his glass, “Ginger Ale.”
Kumai nodded. He turned to the girls and said, “Excuse me a minute?” They both put on a pout and clung to his arms so that he had to peel them off. “I’m coming back.”
“What are you doing here?” He asked Kumai.
“Um. I don’t really know, to tell you the truth. Someone invited me here, but he’s not here.” A jerk by the name of Kane, know him? “So, instead I’m killing time drinking iced tea until it looks like I’ve been here long enough to leave.”
Dr. Ching laughed. “Awkward. Wanna join us?”
She looked over to the table and got icy stares back from the ladies. “Don’t think so, but thanks.”
“I’m not usually here.” He said. “I mean, I don’t have to come here. I just choose to sometimes.” He drifted off as if she wouldn’t be interested. But she was interested. Why was he here?
“How’s the Shelby Cobra?”
“In repairs as we speak.” He said. “I’m driving the Navigator we use to tour visitors around the lab.”
“With these petrol prices?” She laughed.
“The cobra was no better.” He sighed.
“Well, it’s good to see you again.” He said, then looked longingly at his table.
“You too, thanks. Best get back to your friends.” Kumai said.
“Remember, if there’s ever anything I can do for you…”
“I remember.” She smiled as he walked back to his table.
Kane strolled in through the entrance, scanned the room, barely paused to look at Kumai, and went to Susan’s table. He said something and she gestured for him to take the seat across the table. He sat next to her, leaning in close. Kumai watched as Susan leaned away from him, slid the condensation down from her glass, scooted out her chair and left the table. She walked toward the bar and saw Kumai watching her.
Susan waved and walked over. “This is a surprise.” Susan said.
“This whole place is a surprise.” Kumai said. “How’d things go in California?”
“Done.” Susan said and pursed her lips as if sealing them closed.
“Well, that’s good then.” Kumai said. “I guess?”
“I guess.” Susan said. “What’s with this place, do you know?”
“I was hoping you could tell me. I can’t seem to work it out. None of the couples here seem like real couples to me.”
“There’s that. And the fact that several men have propositioned me without so much as a bad line for starters. Everyone seems… too forward.”
“I know what you mean. What happened with Kane?” Kumai asked.
“He suggested that I bury my sorrows in sex.”
“What?” Kumai asked, a little too loudly. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means he has been following my activities, for one thing. And it means that he’s involved in something here, but I couldn’t quite get out of him what it is.” Susan flicked her glass and made it ring. The bartender looked over and Susan shook her head no.
“There’s something about how the bartender and my waiter were acting, too.” Kumai said, then interrupted herself as a stout little woman in stilettos pranced into the bar from the kitchen area. She whispered something to the bartender, then burst into a cackle at her own words. Kumai recognized the laugh. “Annamae?”
“What?” Susan asked.
“I think that woman over there is the former head of guest services, Annamae Hoff. She disappeared from the job. Fired or something.” Kumai said.
“I thought the name sounded familiar.” Susan said. “Why’d they fire her?”
“No one would say. Well, maybe we’ll find out. She just spotted me.” Kumai waved.
Annamae teetered over to the women. “Kumai!” She gushed. “You came here! I started to think that you wouldn’t, that maybe you were ignoring my message.”
“I actually didn’t get your message, Annamae.” Kumai admitted.
Annamae started pouring another iced tea as if Kumai had asked for it. She gestured to the glass, “Act like I’m asking you about the tea.”
“Okay.” Kumai said.
“I hoped that you would ignore the message. Say something now.” Annamae said.
“Lemon.” Kumai said.
“Right.” Annamae reached for a lemon and washed it. She held it up in front of them. “You don’t want to be here. I hoped you would figure it out, with my getting fired, and your neighbors and all.”
“My neighbors?” Kumai looked around.
“Don’t look around. Act like we’re talking about your tea.”
Kumai pointed to her glass. “What are you talking about?”
Annamae held up a new glass. “Leave as soon as you can, Kumai. Your neighbors got in here, but they couldn’t get out.”
Susan asked, “The dead neighbors?”
“Leave together.” Annamae smiled and handed the tea to Kumai. “Now.”
Kumai held up her hand at the offered tea. “No thanks. Will you be okay?”
“I’ll be fine. Just go.”
Kumai turned to Susan. “Mind if we leave together?”
“Let’s go.” Susan said. “Thanks for the heads up.” She said to Annamae, but the former executive was engaged in directing a young woman to a table of men. Susan scowled and looked to Kumai.
Kumai tilted her head to the door.
They let out their held breaths as they emerged from the tiki-sentried entrance. “That was confusing.” Susan said.
“Freaky.” Kumai said. “Mind if we check my vehicle in case I need to catch a ride with you?”
“Okay…” Susan said.
“Long story.” Kumai explained as they walked toward the mail truck.
“This is your vehicle? Why would a spy drive such a distinctive van?” Susan asked, one hand on her hip. “Oh, you’re luring someone.”
“I’m not a spy.” Kumai said, with more impatience than she intended. She noted that the dirt lines on the van had been scuffed and scraped. She tried to open the cargo door and it was locked. She stepped away from the van. “Let’s use your vehicle. What did you drive?”
“Lightning.” Susan said.
“Oh,” Kumai hesitated. They would know that truck too.
“What?” Susan pointed to where she had parked as if they should get going.
“Do you mind if I check it over a little bit before you get in?” Kumai asked.
“For what?” Susan asked. “Bonnie said you were acting weird.”
“Please, just allow me?” Kumai asked.
“After you.” Susan said, gesturing with an open hand.
Kumai walked closer to Lightning. Her stomach clenched, but she had no idea why. She held up a hand to Susan to stay back. Whenever her gut told her something was wrong, it usually took logic a while to catch up and confirm the alarm. She looked at the old pickup parked in the dirt. No scuff marks or footprints. No tool dropped in the dirt. No bits of wire or fingerprints on the hood. She circled again, noting her own footprints. That was it. There were no footprints at all. The ground had been swept clear.
She backed away.
“What?” Susan whispered in a loud whoosh of held breath.
“Something’s wrong. I think he’s been tampered with.” Kumai answered. She scanned the parking lot and her eyes landed on a wine-colored vehicle the size of a small school bus. “Wait by that Navigator. I’ll go get the keys.”
“What?” Susan asked.
But Kumai had left in a run for the bar. She came back breathless, still running, and clicked the key fob twice to unlock the Lincoln.
“Wait,” Susan said. “I’ve got some stuff in the truck.” She trotted back toward Lightning.
Kumai called out, “Leave it.”
Susan stopped in her tracks, looked back at Kumai, then put her hand on her hip. Behind her, the pickup sucked the air from around them, then exploded with a thud that Kumai felt in her chest more than in her ears. The blast hit them with a cloud of dirt and hot air. Kumai heard pieces of metal whistle past her and plink against other vehicles. The cars to either side of Lightning were burning, their tires billowing black smoke. Various car alarms were chirruping across the lot. The palm trees over the parking lot burst into flames.
Susan dropped to her knees in the dirt. Kumai ran to her, helped her stand up and run for the Lincoln. They spun out and drove away as people poured into the parking lot from the bar.