Palm Trees and Paparazzi
J.C. Long © 2019
All Rights Reserved
There was a time when throbbing music, frenetically moving bodies, and expensive cocktails would have been my scene—a time that passed a few years back, I’d guess. Actually, you know what? Scratch that. I’ve never been one for clubs. And with my twenty-ninth birthday merely two months away, it was really time for me to close that chapter of my life, anyway.
It was the second week of January, and some people still hadn’t lost the edge from New Year’s Eve. The club was packed full of people even though it was a Wednesday—thanks, no doubt, to ladies’ night and slightly discounted drinks for men.
My best friend, Grace Park, and I managed to snag a table that was far enough from the speakers that we wouldn’t be deafened for days to come by the outing.
Grace sat at the table, stirring the thin black straw in her vodka tonic, which she’d barely had half of. I’d volunteered to drive us tonight so Grace could have a few drinks, and she hadn’t finished her first one in the hour we’d been there.
“You look miserable, Grace,” I said, nudging her with my shoulder. “If you want to go home, just say the word. Really, we don’t need to stay here on my account.”
“I’m fine, Gabe,” she insisted stubbornly, even though I knew her well enough to know she wasn’t. She’d been down ever since New Year’s Eve. She’d been invited to a party by Jin Hamada, our private investigation firm’s resident tech expert and object of Grace’s affection, and had assumed it was a romantic invitation only to show up, dressed to the nines and ready, to discover it was a casual thing he threw for the people who lived in his apartment building. Jin hadn’t noticed, but Grace had been mortified.
It didn’t help that our assistant, Mrs. Neidermeyer, who lives in Jin’s building, did notice and teased Grace about it every chance that she got.
Privately, I thought Grace was taking it a little hard, but who was I to judge? I literally fled the continent to escape a breakup. That didn’t put me in the running for the category of most reasonable reaction to something.
“I thought coming to this club would cheer you up a little bit,” I said, taking a sip of my ginger ale—no alcohol for me, since I was driving. “I hate seeing you so down. I know how much you love music and dancing and clubs.”
Grace snorted. “When we were in college, yeah. But you know, maybe…maybe we’re a little old for this crowd.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” I admitted. “When did that happen, though? When did we get old?”
“Kind of sneaked up on us, didn’t it? Here we are, just around the corner from thirty. Remember when we watched Friends in high school and we thought they were all overreacting about turning thirty? Now that we’re looking it in the face, I’m starting to think maybe they weren’t overreacting that much after all.”
“It’s not that bad,” I said consolingly. It was a weird reversal for us; usually Grace was the one doing her best to make me feel better, not the other way around. “Think about how high life expectancy is? Nowadays people don’t even really get started before they’re thirty.”
“Not so bad? Come on, Gabe. We’re almost thirty and I’m still single. I do want to have kids someday, you know? That’s getting more and more unlikely the longer I stay single.” She picked up her vodka tonic, tossing it back as if she could wash away the dour thoughts with it.
At least she drank it; that cost me six dollars.
“Don’t you think you’re taking this whole thing too seriously Grace? So you made a mistake and misinterpreted his invitation. You think you’re the first person to ever make that mistake?”
Grace scowled at my reminder. “I looked like an idiot.”
“No one even noticed!”
“Mrs. Neidermeyer almost has an aneurism from laughing every time she sees me!”
“Okay, so no one but Mrs. Neidermeyer even noticed.”
“That old lady is enough.”
“I don’t understand the rivalry you two have.”
“She’s got it out for me!”
“No, she doesn’t. She’s just spirited.”
I decided to drop the Neidermeyer discussion. It was a sore spot for her, and one that wouldn’t go away—particularly since I basically hired her to annoy Grace. The last thing I wanted to do then was to bring Grace down even more by talking about something that she hated.
I surveyed the bodies on the dance floor, taking in the sights, wondering if I could get a jolt of energy from them by proxy. Everyone seemed to be having so much fun, but then again that’s what clubs were, right? There were no doubt a large number of tourists among the crowd, people itching to get away from the tourist elements of Honolulu and into something that they were familiar with. Sure, the locale might be different, but a club was a club, whether it was in Seattle, New York, Pontiac, Michigan, or Honolulu.
“We’ve got company,” Grace said, drawing my attention from the crowd. I spotted my boyfriend, Maka Kekoa, making his way toward us around the perimeter of the room. A wide smile stretched my lips when I saw him. He was tall, his skin a sun-kissed brown that proudly displayed his Native Hawaiian heritage. His body was lean, hard muscle, kept that way by his rigorous exercise routine, his frequent surfing, and his job on the police force.
Walking behind Maka but still casting a shadow over him was one of Maka’s best friends, Hiapo, a big guy with an even bigger heart who ran an exclusive and popular lu’au on the island. Hiapo was without a doubt one of the cheeriest people I had ever met.
“Yo, howzit?” Hiapo greeted, his naturally loud voice easy to hear over the drone of techno dance music blaring in the background, a remix of a remix of a Cher song, if I had to guess.
“Hey, guys,” I greeted, moving my seat a little so Maka could make room on the other side of the table for himself and Hiapo.
Maka smiled at me, a look that always somehow managed to look sultry and goofy at the same time.
“Hey.” He planted a gentle, chaste kiss on my lips.
Beside me, Grace made a strange sound, a cross between a harrumph and a tsk. Maka cast an amused look her way. “I see your plan to cheer her up is right on schedule.”
“I don’t need cheering up,” Grace huffed.
“Girl, you still pining over that IT guy?” Hiapo asked.
“No,” Grace said at the same time Maka and I said, “Yes!” earning us both glowers.
“Listen, you need me to put something together for you? Plan a nice romantic package, like I did for these two here?” He indicated Maka and I with a thumb.
“I appreciate the offer, Hiapo, but that won’t be necessary. I don’t even think he likes me.”
“Have you asked him out?”
Grace squirmed in her seat. “No. But we’ve known each other for three years, and he’s never asked me out in all of this time. I think if he was interested, he would have done something about it already, right?”
“I see one major flaw in that logic, Gracie,” I said. “You like him, but you haven’t done anything about it, either.”
Grace’s brow furrowed as she struggled to come up with a comeback, but I could see in her eyes that she couldn’t. “I just don’t want to waste any more time on someone who might not even like me back. That’s time I could better spend going out with people who are interested.”
“But who you’re not interested in,” I added.
Grace threw her hands up in the air. “Is this beat up Grace night? Are you trying to cheer me up by making me more depressed?”
“Okay, okay, you win. I’ll stop.”
We stayed there for another hour, doing our best to get Grace to cheer up with very limited success. Finally we decided to call it a night. Maka and Hiapo left together, and I took Grace home.
We rode without talking, listening to various covers of songs by the Dynamos. As crazy as it might sound, I hate the Dynamos but really enjoy the songs themselves. I just can’t stand hearing them do the singing.
Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, and just before reaching the neighborhood she lived in I asked, “Are you really going to give up on Jin?”
Grace heaved a sigh, looking out the window, hand propped up under her chin, elbow on the door. With her sitting like that, I could imagine Grace being in a movie, with a deep, soulful soundtrack—maybe something by Adele—playing in the background.
“Don’t you think I should? It seems clear to me that he isn’t interested.”
“It’s not clear to me,” I said, pulling my car to a stop in front of Grace’s place. “Not until you ask him.”
“I’m not going to just waltz up to him and ask him! Don’t be ridiculous.” Grace unbuckled her seatbelt and pushed open the car door.
I shrugged nonchalantly. “Okay, then, fine. Let Mrs. Neidermeyer win.”
She took the bait, just like I knew she would, stopping halfway out of the car and fixing a stern glare on me. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You’re always saying that she’s against you and doesn’t want you seeing Jin,” I reminded her. I hoped that the best way to build up her confidence was to give her an enemy that wasn’t herself. I didn’t feel too badly about it, considering she pretty much disliked Mrs. Neidermeyer the moment she set eyes on her. “If you just give up without really knowing, all you’re doing is giving her exactly what she wants, right?”
“I’ll think about it,” Grace said after considering my words. “I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”
“Goodnight, Grace.” I sat in front of her place until she was safely inside before driving home. I really hoped Grace did think about what I said and finally took the leap and asked Jin—that or move on, because working with her in this sort of funk was beginning to get a little tiring.
And, if I was being completely honest, it felt really juvenile, like high school all over again. I was ready for Grace to go back to her normal self. Maybe that made me a bad friend, but I looked at it a different way. Grace pushed me to get out of the condo and out into the world of the living once more after I arrived in Hawai’i, and I was returning the favor now.
I only hoped she would appreciate it as much as I did.
When I showed up to work the next morning, I was surprised to find a shiny black limousine sitting in the parking lot, taking up what few parking spots actually existed outside of the office of Paradise Investigations where Grace and I worked as private investigators. Okay, technically Grace was the only one of us licensed, but I was working on it and hoped to have gotten it by the end of June.
Grace wasn’t there yet, I saw, but Mrs. Neidermeyer was. I would know the lime-green 1979 Ford Pinto she drove anywhere. It had to be the only one left on the island—probably on any of the islands. Even if it had been a less recognizable car, the bright, sparkly pink window decal that said “Sexy Grandma” was a dead giveaway.
I eased my car into the spot beside the Pinto and got out. I tried to act casual and not attempt to peer through the dark tint of the limousine’s windows to see who was inside. Maybe the driver was new and was looking up directions on his or her phone, or perhaps whoever was behind the wheel thought this place was abandoned and decided to pull in to grab a quick cat nap at eight-fifty in the morning.
Mrs. Neidermeyer sat behind her desk in the front lobby of the office when I entered. Today she’d chosen to wear a pair of far too skinny designer jeans and a white halter top that did nothing to hide the bright pink bra she wore under it. It was all thrown horribly off-kilter by the blue rinse in her curly hair.
“Good morning, Gabe,” she greeted me brightly. “See the schnazzy limo outside?”
“Hard to miss. Like your outfit.”
Mrs. Neidermeyer straightened in her chair, preening a bit. “You like it?”
“Come on, Mrs. Neidermeyer, you know you’re only wearing that because Grace told you that sort of outfit is inappropriate for the workplace. You just want to mess with her head.”
“That’s not true! I also want to look good.”
It was all I could do not to slap myself in the forehead. I’d brought this on myself, hiring her to annoy Grace. I hadn’t considered the consequences, that I might get caught in the middle. The whole thing had been a poorly thought through mess. The only thing that kept me from bringing an end to it all was the fact that she was an old lady who desperately needed the job to support her incredibly awful spending habits.
Far be it for me to come between an elderly woman and her Gucci.
“What’s with the limo out—oh good lord, Mrs. Neidermeyer!”
That would be Grace. I looked over my shoulder to see her standing there in the doorway, a look of disgust plain on her face.
Don’t react, I mouthed to her desperately. Grace was a smart woman; she knew that Mrs. Neidermeyer just wanted to provoke a reaction from her, she knew it and yet she still insisted on walking into the trap knowing full well it was a trap. The irrationality of it baffled me.
“That is way too much skin to be showing in the work place!”
Mrs. Neidermeyer let out a short, sharp cackle. “I’d like to see you pull something like this off!”
Grace stalked toward Mrs. Neidermeyer’s desk, getting geared up for a full-fledged battle. “I’d like to pull that off of you and burn it!”
“Guys,” I said patiently, trying to be the voice of reason. “Can I just remind you that there’s a limousine with an unknown passenger parked out front? And we don’t have curtains on the windows.”
Grace took a deep calming breath, much to my relief. “You know what? You’re right. It’s not worth it. What do I care if she makes a fool of herself in public?”
“Jealousy,” Mrs. Neidermeyer said in a singsong voice. “It must be hard going through life that envious, Grace.”
“It must be hard going through life without taking your medication,” Grace shot back.
Outside a car door shut. “Enough,” I said firmly, giving them both my best I mean it glare. The last thing Paradise Investigations needed was a public squabble. We were still having a hard time establishing a reputation for ourselves, even though we’d been involved in two majorly high-profile cases. Well, only one if you didn’t count the murder of Grace’s former business partner, Carrie. Back in September we’d helped uncover a hidden tontine containing a wealth of artwork stolen from the Japanese in the Pacific during World War Two. Since then, though, we’d sort of fizzled right back into this purgatory of sorts. We still got a few cases a month, but none of it was enough to justify all of our expenses.
A limousine outside might be the answer to our financial prayers, if I could keep these two from killing each other long enough to give a somewhat decent impression to whoever was in it.
“If this is a potential customer, the last thing we want to do is scare them off, right? We need the money. I don’t know how much longer we can stay in business the way things are going. So be professional!”
“Be professional?” Grace repeated incredulously. “It won’t matter how professional we are with Mrs. Neidermeyer sitting here in that!”
The last thing I wanted to do was get caught in the middle of them, but Grace had a point. We would have a hard time being taken seriously if Mrs. Neidermeyer and her…interesting…clothing style was the first thing they saw. There was nothing we could do about that right now, but I was determined to have a talk with her about her fashion choices in the near future.
A second car door closed outside and then there was a uniformed chauffeur opening the door. The woman who came through the door was beautiful, elegant, and dressed in clothing that probably cost as much as our monthly rent for the office. Her features were strong, her brown eyes like stone and yet somehow emotionally vulnerable at the same time. Her sleek black hair was pulled back into a long ponytail that reached down to the small of her back.
“Welcome to Paradise Investigations,” Grace said with a winning smile, stepping over so she was in front of Mrs. Neidermeyer’s desk. “I’m Grace Park, this is my partner, Gabe Maxfield.”
I nodded politely at my name.
“I’m Helena Hu,” she introduced herself briskly. She had the voice of a woman who stood in her power, confident and always in control. I found myself admiring her instantly, just from those three words. “I’m here to seek your services. I apologize if it seems forward, but considering the nature of my request and the fact that time is of the essence, I’d like to get straight to it, if you don’t mind.”
“Uh, well, of course,” I said, shooting a glance at Grace. “Why don’t you follow us? We can speak in my office.”
I led the way through the door that opened back into what used to be the three examination rooms of the dentist office before we bought it and turned it into our own. Once through the door I motioned for Helena to take one of the two seats across from my desk. Grace stood next to me as I sat down in my chair.
“What is it you’d like us to do for you, Mrs. Hu?”
“I want you to find my daughter,” she said immediately.
It wasn’t what I expected. I assumed she wanted us to track a cheating spouse or find a way to get around a prenuptial agreement or something equally Dallas-esque. Finding someone? That was new territory.
“Do you mean that you want us to find someone you put up for adoption?”
“No. My daughter, Christine Hu, is missing. She has been for three days. I want you to find out where she is.”
“Uh, Mrs. Hu,” Grace said carefully, brow furrowed. “No offense intended, but this sounds like it’s something the police should be handling, not private detectives.”
Helena tutted. “The police are convinced she ran off with her personal assistant.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Well, did she?”
“Absolutely not,” Helena replied crossly. “That’s not the kind of person my daughter is. I know how it can seem—she’s a Honolulu socialite, grew up in money, always in the paper, but she’s no Lindsey Lohan or Paris Hilton. My daughter is a serious woman who loves her family. Her father died when she was seventeen, so I’m all the family she has. We’re very close. She would never just run off and leave me. Besides, she’s engaged. She wouldn’t have thrown that away for some fling with her personal assistant.”
“What makes the police so certain that’s what happened?” Grace asked, picking up a notepad and a pen from my desk and jotting down some preliminary notes.
“Because Travis—that’s the personal assistant, Travis Brent—disappeared the same day.”
I didn’t say it, but it sounded to me like perhaps Helena Hu didn’t know her daughter as well as she might. That wasn’t really a judgment for me to make, though, having never seen them interact together and not knowing the personal details of their lives. My first instinct was to say that money always screwed up families—my family being a prime example—but I reminded myself that my family wasn’t really representative of all people with money.
If Helena said her daughter wouldn’t do that, then I had to trust her judgment on the matter.
“Is there anything you can tell us about your daughter that might be relevant? Any places she likes to go, establishments she frequents? You mentioned a fiancé?”
Helena reached into her Coach purse and took out a piece of paper. “Here’s a list of all of the places she usually goes to. You won’t find a lot of nightlife spots on the list; it wasn’t her thing. And yes, she recently got engaged. Last month, actually. The announcement was really big news.” A second piece of paper followed the first, this one a folded-up newspaper clipping.
“‘Socialite daughter of Honolulu philanthropist set to marry in the fall,’” Grace read. Under the headline was a photo of a couple. The woman was without a doubt Helena’s daughter, Christine. She was the spitting image of her mother. She had a brilliant smile that managed to shine through even in the black and white photo.
The man next to her was handsome in a roguish sort of way, with a narrow chin, high cheekbones, and a large nose that looked like it had suffered many breaks throughout his life. Something in his face was recognizable.
They both looked happy next to each other, a couple in love from what I could see.
“They look happy,” Grace said, mirroring my thoughts.
“They do,” Helena agreed. “Although I have my own misgivings about the two of them.”
“Why is that?” Grace asked.
“Oh, I think I know,” I said before Helena could speak. I reread the caption beneath the picture three times, and each time the knot in my stomach grew tighter. “‘Pictured: Christine Hu and fiancé Sergio Delgado photographed at the announcement of their engagement.’” I looked up at Helena. “Delgado, as in Manuel Delgado?”
“Yes. Sergio is his eldest son.”
“Well,” I said, letting that sink in, “I guess I can understand the misgivings. Then again, you probably already guessed that, right?”
Helena smiled a little bit. “That’s true enough. I sought you out because I know of your past dealings with the Delgado family. You two are among the minuscule list of people I can trust aren’t in Manuel Delgado’s pocket.”
“You can say that again,” Grace growled. We both knew without any doubt that Manuel Delgado was the man behind the death of Grace’s former business partner, but we couldn’t prove it. He was a rich and influential man on the island, and had the power to protect himself.
Helena arched an eyebrow. “So, I take it you’re going to take the job?”
I tilted my head toward Grace, who gave me a nod. “Mrs. Hu, you’ve got yourself private investigators.”