Copyright 2010 by Paul Levine and reprinted here with his permission.
C H A P T E R 1
Standing barefoot and bare-chested in a moonlit tidal pool, the muscular Hawaiian watched the fat man approach, carrying a canvas backpack, slipping on the wet rocks as the roiling surf crashed offshore. The fat man yelled something but was drowned out by the thunderclap of a wave against the volcanic shelf.
Closer now, the man lost his balance and slid into a depression of muck and seawater. He caught himself on a smooth boulder the shape of a tombstone, polished grayish-white by a million years of salt spray. Gingerly, the man navigated between two sharp rocks embedded in the sand.
“Do you know how much I paid for these boots?” the man asked, mournfully lifting a leg from the slime. “Ostrich skin, hand-stitched in Australia.”
As motionless as one of the rocks, the Hawaiian silently watched the fat man, whose voice rose over the howl of wind and waves. “Eleven hundred bucks! I oughta take it right off the top.”
A gust lifted the tail of the fat man’s aloha shirt – white orchids and red heliconia – that still bore creases from the hotel gift shop. “You and your damn rituals.” The man lowered his voice into a formal cadence. “‘Go past the village called Honokahua just behind Makaluapuna Point. Meet me at the rocks they call Dragon’s Teeth.'” A roller crashed and foaming water cascaded into the tidal pool. “What horseshit! Christ, I thought the cachacos in Colombia were weird, but you Maui Wowies are really two cans short of a six-pack.”
“Do you have the money?”
“You got some nerve, punk, you know that?” The fat man’s eyes darted toward the Hawaiian’s crotch. “Jeez, what’re you wearing, a goddamn loincloth?”
“The malo is made from the skin of a wild goat.”
“You look like some fruit from Fire Island.”
“My ancestors wore these when they paddled canoes from Tonga to Hawaii, seven hundred years before Columbus.”
The fat man’s boots made a squishing sound as he stepped closer to the darker-skinned, younger man. “Spare me another history lesson, okay?” He swung the backpack off his shoulder. “It’s all here, which is more than I can say for your deliveries. You shortchanged us by twenty percent last time, and my superiors have changed my orders.”
The fat man reached into the backpack and came out with a long-barreled .41-caliber revolver, its satin finish catching the glint of the moon. “I’m sorry about this. You know how I hate violence. If there was any way to work it out, I’d – “
“You should not aim at my head,” the Hawaiian told him, placidly. “A simple movement, and you would miss.” He tucked his head left, then right, a young Muhammad Ali slipping a punch. “Then I would kill you.”
The fat man licked his lips and lowered the gun toward the younger man’s heart.
“That cannon is too heavy for you,” the Hawaiian continued. “You need two hands to steady it. Or are you just nervous? Are you tasting fear along with your hotel dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes?”
“Hey, you’re the one who should be afraid, beach boy.” He struggled to toughen his voice, but the pitch rose just enough to betray him. “You dicked around with the wrong guys.”
“Do I look as if I am afraid?”
“No, you and your Polynesian warrior bullshit wouldn’t allow it.”
The Hawaiian turned toward the crashing waves. Across the Pailolo Channel, the cliffs of Molokai rose from the black sea, silhouetted by the moonlight. “My people had no metal. Their sailing canoes were made of wood lashed together with coconut fibers and caulked with breadfruit gum. The sails were woven from hala leaves.”
“Who gives a shit?”
“They had no navigational instruments. Just the stars and the moon and their
knowledge of ocean currents and the flight of seabirds.”
“Seabirds,” the fat man repeated, shaking his head. “You been smoking too much of your own shit.”
“They followed the clouds on the horizon to find mountainous islands in the sea. All this my people knew.”
“What’s your point?”
The Hawaiian turned back to face the man with the gun. “What is it that you know, haole? Could you survive even one week in the jungle on Molokai barely ten miles from your luxury hotel?”
The fat man shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I was too busy stealing hubcaps to get my Eagle Scout badge, okay?”
“If you and I were alone in the jungle, who would survive and who would die?”
“That ain’t the way it is,” the fat man said, wagging the gun. “I got Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson on my side.” A wave crashed on the rocks and the spray shot over them.
“On a shore very much like this, the English sailors aimed their guns at my ancestors.
Your Captain Cook believed the natives would surely surrender.”
“Hey, he wasn’t my captain.”
“Except for wooden fence posts and rocks, we were unarmed.” He smirked at the fat man. “And dressed like fruits from Fire Island.”
“You sound like you were there.”
“Oh, but I was.”
Another wave hit, a torrent rushing over them, the backwash tugging at their legs.
The fat man’s boots filled with seawater and sunk deeper into the muck. He tried to lift a leg. “All right, enough. I gotta get this over with. Finish your damn story. It’s the last one you’ll ever tell.”
The Hawaiian’s smile shone in the moonlight. “We were on our own land. There was never any chance we would surrender. We swarmed over the English, while singing praises to our gods. We crushed Cook’s skull against the rocks, then stripped the flesh from his bones.”
“Great story. I’ll watch for it on HBO.” The fat man seemed to shiver as the sea breeze picked up and whipped a frothy spray over him. He looked profoundly sad as he drew back the hammer on the large-framed revolver. “Look, I hate this part of the job, but I got no choice.” A giant roller tumbled past the rocks and surged over them, filling the tidal pool up to their knees. The fat man coughed and spit. “Shit! I’ll take a dark alley in Jersey City over this anytime.”
“High tide,” the Hawaiian said, looking toward the moon. “You must always know your surroundings. Listen to the earth and the sea, and they will speak to you.” He turned toward the fat man and braced himself against a boulder.
“What the hell are you – “
A giant wave crashed past the rocks that resembled dragon’s teeth and cascaded over them. The surge twisted the fat man around in his sunken boots and toppled him into the water, the gun flying from his hand. Before the backwash could drain from the tidal pool, the younger man was on him, grabbing him by the neck, bashing his head against a boulder, time and again, the fat man’s skull shattering like a coconut under the ax, his cries drowned out by the roar of the ceaseless waves.
C H A P T E R 2
The Old Man, the Blonde, and the Bonds
The old man loved gadgets, money, and large-breasted women, and at the moment, he had all three. His thick hands caressed the newest gadget, a sixty-second camera, turned it over and admired its smoothness, a tidy little box cool to the touch. The money came from the sale of Corrugated Container Corp., the company he had founded in the 1920s. The breasts belonged to Violet Belfrey, and she relied on them as an aging fastball pitcher might his slider. Few men remembered a word Violet said, but the image of her full breasts endured for years. A lot of men and a lot of years. With her solid cheekbones and strong jaw, Violet’s age was impossible to determine.
Somewhere between forty and hell, the old man guessed.
She showed him how to open the camera, her hands touching his and lingering.
“Birthday present for you,” Violet Belfrey said. “Now, let’s take some pictures.”
Samuel Kazdoy shrugged his rounded shoulders. “What’s to take here?”
They were in his office on the mezzanine of the South Side Theater in Miami Beach.
The ventilation was bad, and the theater smelled of age, a tired building in a dying part of town that somehow missed the renaissance going on all around it. Samuel Kazdoy puttered around every afternoon in the dimly lit office and checked in evenings at his twenty-four-hour delicatessen on Collins Avenue. If you’ve worked for seventy years, you can’t turn it off just because the sand is running out of the glass.
“Ah’ll show you two things to take,” Violet said, peeling off her orlon sweater and slipping out of a sheer red brassiere. She loosened her platinum hair, shaking it in streams over her shoulders, her breasts tumbling free. “How’s this for a Kodak moment?”
He squinted through the viewfinder. “Ay, you got some moxie, bubeleh.”
“Jes’ aim and push the button,” Violet said. He did, the flash bleaching the office in white light and casting tiny shadows in the furrows of her forehead. She squeezed out of her tight jeans and high-stepped out of her panties that matched the brassiere right down to the red frilly trim. She turned sideways and arched her back so that her buns jutted skyward like the ramp of a ski jump, and at the same time, squashed her breasts together with her arms. There was no seduction on her lips, no excitement in her eyes. She could have been composing grocery lists for all that her face revealed.
Kazdoy clicked another picture. Eyes smarting from the flash, Violet Belfrey saw a strip joint in Jacksonville a dozen years earlier. She had danced on a table there and even now could smell the stale beer on the wooden bar and feel the salesmen’s clammy hands tucking dollar bills into her garter, copping a quick feel as she stepped down. She hated it when the music stopped and she heard the scumbags laughing and the glasses tinkling, no longer able to pretend she was alone.
Violet Belfrey saw more than her share of motel ceilings in Jax, which she figured was the world’s largest jerkwater town, a place where the stench of the paper mills clung to your clothes like flypaper on a summer night. She had been stuck halfway between the Carolina mountains and the Florida Gold Coast, and the money was decent even if the men were not. She remembered a blur of flushed faces, of men who leaned close with spur breath and winked that maybe a double sawbuck was the key to her apartment door. Never again, she had vowed, would she sell herself. At least not so cheaply, she later amended.
“Gottenyu!” Kazdoy wore a child’s look of astonishment as the instant film developed before his eyes. The legs appeared, the bare round bottom, the breasts filling in, all creamy smoothness, the nipples flat, oblivious to his attention.
Kazdoy loosened his clip-on tie and removed the plaid sports coat. An old sensation tugged within him but he knew it was his memory stirring, not his loins.
He shuffled across the cluttered office filled with photos of company picnics, sketches of new factories, and industry awards. A short man with fringes of white hair, he wore a blue plaid polyester sports coat and a baggy pair of pants that fit better when Ike was president. Placing a hand on Violet’s shoulder, Kazdoy said, “Here, bubeleh, I got something for you.”
She stiffened a moment, an old reflex no matter how many times she’d been down that road. The feeling passed as it always did and she was ready for him, but Samuel Kazdoy walked past her, threw back a soiled blanket that covered a file cabinet, and twirled a combination lock. Violet squinted, but the seventy-five-watt bulb tossed shadows, and her eyes still saw blue lightning from the flash.
“How do you remember the combination?” she asked, hoping he would say it aloud. “My little ole head would never keep all the numbers straight.”
Kazdoy laughed, touching a finger to his forehead. “My hop still works, even if my schmeckel don’t.” He opened the cabinet and Violet saw bundles of papers, legal-looking with fancy script writing and colorful borders. “Coupons,” he continued, reaching in with both hands, a kid in a candy bowl. “Put ’em in a safe place. And the first of every month, take ’em to the bank.”
The only coupons Violet knew got you twenty-five cents off the kitchen cleanser, so she had no idea what he was giving her, but she figured if you take them to the bank, they can’t be half bad. Violet stuffed the documents into the bag from the camera store and quickly put on her clothes. She gave the old man a peck on the cheek.
“Thanks, Mr. K. You’re the only thing in pants what’s ever been nice to me without askin’ somethin’ in return.”
“You’re some tsatske,” he said with the smile of a young man. His dark eyes were bright and still sparkled with the gift of laughter. “Now run along before I start something I can’t finish. I got coupons to clip for the first of December, and so do you.”
“You’re a sweetie,” Violet said, wondering what the hell he had given her and what
was left behind in the locked cabinet.
“Sweetie?” Samuel Kazdoy shook his head and smiled again. “Twenty years ago … no make it ten, I’d have given you something sweet. I’d have shtupped you from here to Shamokin.”
* * *
The sign bolted to the stucco wall said sea view terrace, though the drab, three-story building had neither. Violet had moved in shortly after answering the classified ad in the Miami Beach Sun: “Shayna maidel or shiksa wanted as Gal Friday for owner of theater and delicatessen.” She figured the job couldn’t be worse than the midnight shift at the Sunny Isles Peep Show.
It was only a five-minute walk to the apartment building from Kazdoy’s office, and tonight there would be no detours. A few aging widows still lived there, having relocated from Brooklyn or Jersey, but now the tenants were mostly Hispanic. To Violet, they were mostly Cuban, for she made no distinction between the Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans, Colombians, and a melting pot of others from the Caribbean and Central and South America. All she knew, they jabbered in Spanish so loud you couldn’t hear the old Jews hacking up phlegm across the hall.
Violet could tell the difference between her Hispanic neighbors and the Haitians who moved in a block away at the Ocean Manor. The Haitians were blacker than midnight, poorer than Georgia crackers, and they scared the bejesus out of her when she walked by their building. No matter that the men looked down as she walked by, Violet feared them for their barechested blackness. This night, one of them painted bright pictures on a piece of driftwood, another carved a woman’s torso in a piece of dark mahogany. Violet eyeballed the knife as she passed. She clenched the camera store bag until her knuckles were white. Thirty paces from the front steps of her building, a blur flashed from behind.
“Cuidate mujer!” Manuel, a skinny twelve-year-old from the second floor, flew by on his skateboard and Violet stumbled off the curb.
“Stay off the sidewalk, you little greaseball!” Violet shrieked after him.
Tingling with anticipation, Violet climbed the stairs. The hallway smelled of fried bananas. Behind the thin walls, a child wailed. Once inside her apartment, Violet’s bony hands were a blur of motion. She made a small pot of black coffee. She tied her hair back into a ponytail and sat cross-legged in the tiny living room. She spread the papers onto the living room floor, the cheap shag carpeting matted under the glorious display of colors, blue and orange and purple borders. On top of each one, a finely etched eagle, a magnificent predator with wings unfolding and poised for flight.
Violet Belfrey felt like singing the national anthem.
Sipping the strong coffee, she arranged the papers alphabetically, which seemed the businesslike thing to do. First came “Allegheny County Industrial Development Authority Environmental Improvement Bond, United States Steel Corporation Project 6-3/4 percent.”
Bonds, she thought, smiling, for she had heard of stocks and bonds. She had posted bond once on a crummy soliciting charge, but that was different. Posting bond, you paid them; stocks and bonds, they paid you. She folded the bond along its creased lines into a little package. On the front, it said, “Five Thousand Dollars,” a wonderful round number. She unfolded the pretty package and inside, attached to the bond, were three dozen little slips with tiny print like an eye exam. Must be the coupons the old man mentioned, she thought. They each said $168.75 payable every September 1 and March 1. Then, what the hell, in the year of our Lord 2012, she would get the five grand.
Too damn long.
Her tits would hang to her hips by then. Tomorrow she would take the bonds to her bank where the vice president with the rat’s tail mustache and wandering hands would tell her how the hell to get some money now. Not about to wait six months to cash little tickets like a shitty bolita prize, much less nearly twenty years for the jackpot.