Thunder and lightening storms are rare on Oahu; the temperature seldom varies enough, or quickly enough, to create the conditions that produce them. When they do occasionally occur they tend to be prodigious. Those visiting for only a few days often fail to recognize the special nature of such storms. They’re too concerned to make every moment of sun, sand and surf count … and who can blame them? A thunder storm is disruptive, intrusive, an annoyance. And, “hey,” they complain, “we get weather like this at home – we came to Hawaii for the sun.”
Those who have lived in the islands for even a short while, on the other hand, tend to revel in the sudden downpour and the loud crack of thunder that reverberates as it rides the trades. Most to be savored, however, is the jagged bolt of lightening that re-illuminates however briefly, the usually azure skies that have gone unaccustomedly black.
It was late afternoon during one such storm that a middle-aged man stood on his lanai in T-shirt, shorts and sandals and watched the display of light and sound wash violently over the streets and buildings of Waikiki. From his vantage on the 11th floor of his building the man had, given the congestion of high-rises in the area, a remarkably clear view in three directions. The Ala Wai Canal off to his right, and the mountains that rose above and beyond its inky waters, were lost in a wall of rain. In front of him, and just below, the tops of the palm trees that grew in the yards and along the sidewalk shook like mad dogs shedding water after a swim. The normally dry rustle of their fronds had been replaced by the sound of a swarm of hungry locusts. When he turned to the left, he could just make out the wane lights from the upper floors of the hotels and condos along Kuhio and, just beyond that, Kalakaua Avenue. The entire scene reminded him of something from the palate of a Dadaist or Surrealist painter.
The elemental force of the storm, fearsome and beautiful at the same time, had distracted him from his reading. Reading, that’s what he spent most of his time doing these days. His preference, not surprisingly given his background, tended toward the noir. But that’s not to say he ignored titles of a more literary nature. He had recently acquired a taste for Conrad, Greene and Borges, though the latter in particular tended to be frustratingly dense and allusive. The man did, however, have a great deal of empathy for many of the Argentinean’s characters – the knife-fighters and the rogues, the solitary gauchos and even the ascetics and mystics.
In fact, apart from his growing collection of books and the wine he drank somewhat too appreciatively, the man led what many might consider an ascetic existence … and it was most certainly solitary. In any event, it was a far cry from his former extravagant, even profligate, lifestyle. True, he still went out two or three times a week for dinner; there was a little place just around the corner in the basement of the old Outrigger East on Kanekapolei that he liked. The dark interior suited both his mood most nights as well as his purposes of remaining more or less inconspicuous. The place also featured a jazz combo in the evening and the often bluesy, always melancholy, piano backed by bass and drums seemed to be the perfect soundtrack to this phase of his life and career. Apart from that, and the occasional walk along the canal at sunset, he seldom left his apartment. He avoided the beach – a mere three blocks away to the south – entirely. The narrow strip of sand that ran the length of Waikiki was always crowded and, so, the risk of his being recognized was just too great.
As he leaned against the railing of his lanai, the wind and rain lashing his face, he reflected on how even the most beautiful of places can be prisons. Indeed, the walls of his apartment might just as well have been made of bars and the doors constructed of steel. When he stole the money he hadn’t anticipated this, though he should have. He had certainly been around long enough to see what happened to most people on the run. He’d even been involved in tracking down more than a few of them himself.
That had been part of the problem, after all: he thought he knew all the angles, all the right moves. He had been seduced by his position and experience into thinking that he’d be the one to finally “beat the house.” But no one ever really beat the house. Oh, he had been ahead of the game for a time. It was a week or so before Mr. Toscano and his people even realized that the money was gone, and then another couple of days before they zeroed in on who must have taken it. The man liked to think that old Mr. T – his mentor and, almost a father-figure – must have been in such a state of shock when he discovered the truth that he took yet another couple of days before giving the recovery and termination orders.
The man had taken full advantage of the delay. He fled first to South America, then back to the States and, finally, to Hawaii; the most remote island chain in the world. He had been here now for almost eighteen months. He had changed his habits, his hairstyle and his routine. But in the end, he knew that none of that would be enough. He was under sentence, on death row, and sooner now rather than later, all his appeals would be denied and his time would be up. Karma might be slow but she was a bitch who held a grudge and she was inexorable, unrelenting. You could run but, ultimately, it was impossible to escape the consequences of your actions.
The man noticed that it was even darker now than it had been five minutes or so ago. The rain had let up a bit but the thunder and lightening continued with increased frequency. He knew little, if anything, about meteorology, but he guessed that the front was passing and that what he was now witnessing were its death throes. He perceived that the freakish weather was in some way portentous and he strained to read its arcane message. From where he stood he could smell the ocean and there was even a salty tang to the rain that trickled from his hair, ran down his checks and into his mouth. Its taste and feel reminded him of tears.
Hawaii was a place that, secretly, he had always wanted to visit. It was amazing, really, that he had never actually done so. But then, this was a territory that the Asians and Russians had basically staked out as their own now. Not even Mr. Toscano, who was as tough and ruthless as they came, would dare to trespass on their turf. It would have been bad business … not to mention suicide. The man had traveled extensively, of course, but the organization’s business had taken him to South America, primarily and, as far as leisure was concerned, the Caribbean had been his beat. But he was in the land of Aloha now, a decision that had strategic value as well, since the man assumed that this would be among the last places his former associates would think to look for him. Over the past year-and-a-half, he had fallen in love with the place. The crowds and the rampant commercialism all around him even held a certain appeal. He may not have been able to articulate what he felt precisely – not even all of his reading of late could supply him with the necessary words or images – but he sensed at some level that this was a land both ancient and, at the same time, as young, chaotic and innocent as the first morning of creation. The storm he was watching, for example, had something both primordial and apocalyptic about it simultaneously.
The money he had absconded with, of course, made it possible for the man to live la vida loca had he chosen to do so. But that would have been a huge mistake. The goal was to blend in, to attract as little attention as possible. Also, truth be told, the man actually felt more than a twinge of guilt when he thought of how he had betrayed Mr. Toscano’s confidence. It had not been mere cupidity that had motivated his actions, though greed had certainly been part of the equation. The man had been resentful. He had worked for Toscano for close to a decade and slowly, imperceptibly, he came to realize that, despite his status as one of Mr. T’s most trusted “go to” guys, there was no chance for further advancement and, thus, not much of a future. When all was said and done, it was a family business after all, and the man was not “family.” As far as “retirement” was concerned, well, in his line of work there was no such thing. The man knew from the outset what happened to members of the organization once they had outlived their usefulness. Still, the man had been respected and treated well. He knew the rules, the code, the proprieties and he had broken them all. He had betrayed his boss and deep down, he understood that to be the one truly unforgivable sin.
He had toyed with the idea of sending what was left of the money – a not inconsiderable sum – back. He knew it wouldn’t change the outcome but it might have allowed him to reclaim some sense of his integrity. He rejected that as an option. It would only be construed as sign of weakness. So, too, would simply going back in order to “face the music.” What was done was done and the drama had to be played out now according to its foreordained script. The man settled for making sizeable donations to a number of local charities and foundations. He had done so on the condition of anonymity, of course, but he still felt that such transactions might be used in some unfathomable way to track him. He recalled the computer “whiz kids” Toscano employed to monitor the activity of various accounts and to keep tabs on disbursements. Computers were a mystery to him and he was reluctant even to use the Internet, though, he did so nonetheless and despite the risk … real or imagined.
It wasn’t that the man was paranoid … though he certainly had reason to be ... or that he was a coward. No one who was could have lasted as long as he had in this business. But, as the weeks and months wore on, he became convinced of the inevitability of his discovery. A less imaginative or less sensitive man, in the same situation, might have reckoned that his chances of “getting away with it” actually increased with each day that passed. This man, however, awoke each morning even more certain of his eventual demise. The situation, he knew was intolerable. He had begun dreaming about and, not long after, wakefully, willfully, imagining his apprehension. In his mind’s eye he’d be sitting in his chair reading. He’d look up to find two burly guys – sometimes he recognized them, most times not – standing in front of him leveling pistols at his chest. There were even times when he would picture old man Toscano himself standing over him while he still lay in bed. In those instances, Mr. T’s weapon of choice was usually a pillow. Unseen hands would hold the man down while his former boss did what he had come to do. The man understood that reality seldom corresponded to one’s expectations for it; still, his fantasies in some sense helped steel him against that day when one of them materialized in earnest.
Although his lanai was covered by a concrete roof that served as the deck of the porch in the unit above his own, the sides and front were open to the elements save for a waist-high railing shaped like a half-moon which enclosed the structure. As hot as he normally was here, the man found himself chilled by the ferocious breeze that was blowing and he suddenly realized that his shirt and shorts were soaking wet. As he turned to go into his darkened apartment, a lightening bolt flashed overhead and illuminated the interior. Standing in the middle of the living room were two men. Shit, he thought, how typical. I must have forgotten to lock the door when I came in. Not that anyone would have heard them breaking down the door in all the noise produced by the storm. Even though their faces were illuminated for only a second, he knew he had never seen either one of them before. He wasn’t surprised. Mr. Toscano was an efficient, practical man. It would have been far more expeditious to hire local talent. That, apparently, is just what he had done.
Both of his assailants carried weapons and both had dark complexions, certainly no shock in this climate. One of the two looked Asian, maybe Filipino. The other was almost certainly a Colombian. The man realized then that there would be no negotiation and, almost certainly, no conversation. He stopped in his tracks and turned around. He wasn’t frightened. In fact, if he felt anything at all, it was relief.
He walked back to the railing and looked out at the storm that was clearly now beginning to abate. For an instant, he considered jumping. But that had never figured into any of the scenarios he had imagined. Instead, he closed his eyes and pictured the scene in his mind. In so doing, he distanced himself from the harsh reality and, in the process, the whole episode came to resemble nothing more than one of the many daydreams he had been entertaining for months now about this very moment. The man almost laughed out loud.
He paid no attention whatsoever when the two hired guns – startled when the man turned and headed back onto the lanai but somewhat more relaxed when they realized he had absolutely nowhere to run – moved in close behind him. The man didn’t feel it when one of the two intruders placed his weapon at he base of his head where neck and shoulders met. If he heard anything when the trigger was pulled it sounded to him like just another clap of thunder. The man didn’t jump but, much to the consternation of his assailants, his body did pitch forward and tumble from the lanai. It sailed through the wind and rain and hit the sidewalk below with a thud that was just audible above the din of the dying storm. There was so much water running on the street and over the walkways that the man’s blood never had a chance to pool. It washed away instantly into the storm drain and, eventually, merged with the warm, amniotic waters of the Pacific.
The two gunmen left the man’s apartment and calmly, but deliberately, made their way down the stairway that zigzagged on the outside of the building at the rear. By the time they reached the street, the rain had stopped and the sun was beginning to poke through the clouds. The lingering scent of ozone was strong as too were the rain washed fragrances of ginger and plumeria.
The Filipino stopped when he felt his cell phone vibrate in his pocket.
“Yeah, it’s done,” he said in Tagalog when he answered. “What? You’ve got to be kidding me? Shit, what do you want us to do now? Listen, this isn’t our fault. O.K. Right away.”
The man’s partner, who was indeed Colombian, couldn’t understand a word of what was being said in the gibberish everyone around here spoke but he could sense that something was wrong. He stared at the Filipino man with a questioning look in his eyes.
The Filipino closed his phone and stuffed it back into his pocket.
“Listen, Carlos, you dumb shit,” he barked in surprisingly passable Spanish, “We really screwed up. We whacked the wrong guy. They were supposed to have sent us to the 11th floor of a building on Kanekapolei, not Liliuokalani like they said. Damn Hawaiian names all sound the same anyhow. How the hell were we supposed to know the difference? Mr. Ona wants us back right away so we can figure out what to do next. Somebody’s gonna have to pay for this but it’s not gonna be us! Son-of-a-bitch, did you see that idiot up there, anyway? He acted like he knew we were coming, almost like he expected, even wanted, it to happen. I swear, as long as I live, I’ll never understand people. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
They got into their car and pulled away. They could hear the Doppler sounds of sirens as the police and fire-rescue units began arriving.
BIO: James C. Clar is a teacher and writer living in upstate New York. His work has been published in print as well as on the Internet. Most recently, his short fiction has appeared in the Taj Mahal Review, The Magazine of Crime & Suspense, Everyday Fiction, Pen Pricks Micro-Fiction, Orchard Press Mysteries, Coffee Cramp Ezine and, of course, Powder Burn Flash.