Tiki Torches and Treasure
J.C. Long © 2017
All Rights Reserved
I was drowning.
Salt water burned my nose as I flailed my arms and legs in the ocean, trying desperately to reorient myself. Every time I started to surface, the ocean waves broke over me again and again. I was done for.
When I finally surfaced and the water drained from my ears, I could hear my companions laughing at my expense—my best friend, Grace Park, sounded like she was going to asphyxiate herself from laughing too hard. My boyfriend, Maka Kekoa, at least had the decency to attempt to hide his laughter from me.
“I’m glad my near-death causes you such amusement,” I growled, glaring at them as best I could with salt water from the Pacific Ocean stinging my eyes. “I knew surfing lessons from you two was a bad idea.”
The three of us were floating in the ocean a ways off from the shore of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, the city I now called home. Well, I was floating in the ocean, which was where I seemed to spend all my time in these lessons. Maka and Grace effortlessly straddled surfboards, Maka also keeping a tight grip on mine so it didn’t get swept away by the waves.
“Don’t get frustrated,” Maka told me supportively once he’d schooled his face to mask his laughter. “No one does it well on their first try. It’s kind of like sex.”
I didn’t take much comfort from his words.
“How about the four-hundredth time?” I grumbled, swimming to the surfboard. I managed to heave my body onto it, feeling the sun warm my skin. I’d gotten tan in my month of being out and about in the constant sunshine of Hawaii, and my hair had gotten longer, almost enough to give me the surfer image. Now if I could just stay on the damn board.
“Don’t be grouchy, Gabe,” Grace chided, splashing water my way. She looked beautiful in the morning sunlight, her dark skin glistening. She wore a teal bikini that showed off her trim, fit form, toned from a lifetime of exercise and the surfing she’d taken up in Hawaii. She was half Hawaiian and half Korean, which is what drew her to Hawaii after we both graduated college in Washington.
“We’ve been at this for two weeks, and I have improved exactly zero percent.” I probably sounded like a whiny kid complaining to them, but I couldn’t help it. I hated not being good at something. “I think I’m just not meant to be a surfer.”
“Everybody’s meant to be a surfer,” Maka said, as if I’d made the most ridiculous remark ever. Grace nodded her head in emphatic agreement.
“Easy for you to say,” I scoffed, flailing my arms wildly as a wave nearly displaced me from my board again. “You were a professional surfer, remember? And you,” I rounded on Grace, “were basically born incapable of being bad at something. Me… I’m just me.”
It felt strange having a pity party in the ocean on a beautiful mid-October morning. Hawaii was paradise in a lot of ways—the sunshine seemed constant, and at a time when Seattle would already be plunging into a chill that heralded winter, it was warm and pleasant in Hawaii. I wasn’t a morning person, though, and Maka and Grace insisted we have these lessons before work. That meant we were usually in the ocean by a quarter to seven.
“You’re more than ‘just you’ to me, babe,” Maka assured me with a wink, making me blush.
Maka was full-blooded native Hawaiian, and he had the complexion to prove it, bronzed by a life spent frolicking in the sun and waves. He had broad shoulders and narrow hips and was taller than my five foot eight, with perfect black hair and lush, full lips that were utterly kissable. His deep brown eyes always seemed to twinkle, as if a powerful light danced behind them.
“Ugh.” Grace rolled her eyes and pretended to gag.
“You’re jealous,” I teased, sticking my tongue out at her.
“Jealous of you having to eat the same meal every night, so to speak? I don’t think so.”
“Hey, if I could eat prime rib every night, I would,” I said.
“Did you really just compare me to ribs?” Maka asked flatly.
“Huh? What? No—I was referring to eating the same meal every night…” I trailed off, realizing how it must have sounded to Maka, even though I didn’t mean it that way.
“If I’m anything,” Maka went on firmly, “I’m loco moco.”
I gaped at him for a moment. He had a problem with being called prime rib, but wanted to be a rice bowl topped with a hamburger, a fried egg, and gravy.
“Actually,” I said after a moment, “I can see that.” And I could. Loco moco was something you wanted to splurge on, something that was decadent, almost sinful. That description fit Maka to the letter.
I tried to give him a smoldering look, but a rogue wave rocked under me, catching me off guard and dumping me once more into the sea.
“Can we please call it a day now?” I pleaded once I was back on my board.
Grace looked like she was in no hurry to bring my suffering to an end, but Maka took pity and checked his watch.
“Actually, we should call it a day. I still need to shower and get to work. It’s going on nine, now; I can only justify going in so late a few times a week, or the chief gets pissy.”
“We also have office hours,” I reminded Grace for what felt like the tenth time that week. She was really good at what she did—we were private investigators—but she didn’t have the mindset necessary to run a business. That had been handled by her partner before me, and Grace was still getting the hang of being in charge of both sides of the business. Well, partially, since we equally shared ownership and those responsibilities.
“This is what we have a secretary for,” Grace pointed out, though she reluctantly began paddling to shore, Maka and I following suit.
“Poor Hayley’s only been with us for a week,” I panted, tired from the lesson and making it back to shore. “Give her a break.”
“Best way for her to learn is to just throw her into the pool,” Grace said once we were back ashore.
I didn’t respond immediately; I was too busy sucking in sweet, sweet oxygen and hoping my wobbly legs didn’t give out as I trudged through the hot, sun-baked sand to the place we’d left our towels.
“I guess it doesn’t matter so much,” I said when I could. “Business has been pretty slow since we hired her. Not good, considering the office we’ve got now. Rent’s a bitch.”
When I’d agreed to be Grace’s partner at the private investigation firm she’d been co-partner in, Paradise Investigations, I helped finance a move to a new building, worlds nicer than the one she’d been in before.
We’d had a keen interest in us the first week or so after the move, considering how we were constantly in the news regarding the murder mystery I’d solved to get Grace off a murder charge. The interest had died down in the following weeks; as it stood now, we hadn’t taken on a new client in five days, and we’d finished the current projects three days before, which meant three days of no billable hours, and thus no money coming in.
“We could always fire her,” Grace suggested, tossing me my towel. “It’d be one less salary we needed to pay.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” I said, though I’d probably consider it after another week of no income being earned. “I’m sure we’ll get by.”
“We could always take an ad out on TV,” Grace suggested suddenly.
“Isn’t that tacky?” Maka wrinkled his nose a bit.
Grace shielded her eyes from the sun, squinting at Maka. “It’s not like we’re lawyers.”
“Even if it isn’t tacky, we can’t afford it,” I reminded her as I wrapped my towel around my waist and gathered my board under my arm for the trek back to our cars. “We’re going to have to pray someone comes in and offers us a job that isn’t finding a lost cat or staking out seedy motels—something we can get some money out of.”
Grace grunted, her spirits somewhat dampened by my pragmatism, but I knew she would get over it. This was our relationship, often consisting of her being flighty and dreamy and me being the cord that pulled her—sometimes forcefully—back down to earth.
“Okay, I’ve got to go,” Maka said when we reached his car. “Already running late.”
“See,” I said, pausing long enough to take a quick kiss on the lips—though I wanted much, much more than a quick kiss—before continuing. “This is yet another good reason we should just stop these morning surfing lessons.”
“Not gonna happen. Seeing you dripping wet is worth being late to work.”
And again, in the space of ten minutes, I blushed.
“You two are disgusting,” Grace muttered.
“Shut up, Grace.”
I stood there, grinning and waving stupidly as Maka slid behind the wheel of his car and drove off. Here it was, a little over a month he and I’d been seeing each other, and still I felt that feeling of butterflies in my stomach whenever he looked at me or I laid eyes on him, and I still got that goofy look on my face when he was around. The honeymoon phase definitely hadn’t come to an end for me yet.
Grace came to stand next to me, a put-upon look on her face. “Can we go? Or are you going to stand here making googly eyes at an empty parking space?”
“Excuse me?” A quiet voice spoke up behind Grace and me, startling me out of my cloud-nine reverie. Grace and I cautiously turned around to find a bookish man behind us, clutching a newspaper in his hand. His hair was sandy blond and disheveled, his mousy face sunburnt across a forehead made high by a receding hairline and the bridge of his nose, where a pair of glasses that looked like they’d been through the ringer was perched. His clothes were wrinkled and looked like he’d slept in them once or twice.
“Can I help you?” I asked cautiously.
“Yes—well, that is to say I hope so. This is you, is it not?” The man held the newspaper out to a small photograph of myself and Grace on the steps of the Honolulu Court House on the day we’d both given testimony in the trial of the man responsible for murdering Grace’s business partner, Carrie, and attempting to kill me—three times, I might add. Our testimony was critical in his conviction. That and the fact that he confessed to the crime to Maka and myself in the office of his employer, Mr. Delgado, who was no doubt a corrupt businessman. Actually, Grace and I both thought Delgado was behind Carrie’s murder. She’d been investigating him, after all.
For a moment, I wondered what our faces were doing in the paper. Had this guy been holding onto the paper for that long? We’d ceased to be relevant pretty much the day after we testified—but then I saw the headline: Sentencing for Convicted Murderer James Ashford Set to Begin Thursday. The article no doubt mentioned Grace and me in there, which explained the picture being used again.
Grace threw her towel over her shoulder, tapping her foot impatiently. “Yes, it’s us, and no we’re not going to make statements about how we hope the sonofabitch fries in the electric chair.”
“I don’t hope that,” I added quickly. “Just so we’re clear, when you print that quote make sure it’s attributed just to her. Just her.”
The man narrowed his eyes in confusion, wrinkling his nose in a way that did nothing to alleviate the mouse-like image I had of him.
“What do you mean? Oh—! No, no. I’m not a reporter. You two run a private investigation firm, correct?”
Grace’s attitude and bearing changed immediately at the mention of our company.
“Yes, yes, we do. I’m Grace Park, licensed private investigator, and this is Gabe Maxfield, my apprentice.”
I grunted and kicked her foot. I hated when she referred to me that way. She wasn’t wrong, technically; I didn’t have my license yet, because the process was a long one and required many hours working alongside someone who was licensed. That didn’t mean I had to like being called her apprentice. I felt like the word immediately made her the more senior of us in the eyes of clients, and we were equals in the company in everything but licensure.
The man’s face lit up. “Wonderful! I have a job I would very much like to discuss with you, one that I think will be quite lucrative for all involved.”
The man’s enthusiasm made me wary; I couldn’t tell if he was just a genuinely enthusiastic guy or if he was pretending to be enthusiastic to cover up how shitty the job he’s offering was. The last time a client had been so enthusiastic I’d ended up inside a disgusting-smelling garbage can outside a questionable sex shop in order to catch a man suspected of cheating on his wife with a prostitute who worked there. All I’d gotten from the night was ruined clothes and a crick in my neck. The next day when I’d met with the client, she confessed her information was wrong and her suspicions spanned from a lack of sexual interest that turned out to be because he was suffering from erectile dysfunction and was too embarrassed to say anything.
“Okay, what’s the job?” To her credit, Grace didn’t sound too over-eager.
The man looked positively startled by the request. “No, not here. Definitely not here. It isn’t safe to talk about it here.” He dropped his voice low, taking on a conspiratorial tone. “It’s too risky; this is very sensitive information.”
“Well, then we can go to our office,” I offered. “It’s not too far from here, and you could follow us…”
The man shook his head, and I trailed off. I was starting to think the enthusiasm wasn’t trying to cover up a bad job offer but that this man was totally crazy. I signaled to Grace that we should back away slowly, but the glare she gave me in return didn’t leave me much hope that she would do so.
“I’d like to meet with you at this address this afternoon at one, if at all possible.” He dug a crumpled-up piece of paper from his pocket and held it out toward me. I took it reluctantly. It was a receipt from a gas station for gas, gum, and a Coke. On the other side, an address had been written in hurried but legible handwriting.
This was too weird—the random address, the paranoia, and the outfit. I felt like I’d suddenly stepped onto the set of a really bad movie based on a Tom Clancy novel. I wasn’t much into spy thrillers in my fiction and definitely didn’t like the idea of it in my everyday life.
Before I could voice my concern over the matter, though, the strange man turned and hurried off, head ducked low, like he thought someone was keeping an eye on him.
“That was an interesting man,” Grace remarked, though her voice carried quite a bit more amusement than I was feeling at that moment.
“Interesting is one way to put it.” I stared at his retreating back, an uneasy feeling settling over me.
“Hey, earth to Gabe?” Grace waved her hand in front of my face. “Let’s get to work before Hayley decides we’re not coming in today and goes home.”
When we arrived at the new office—remodeled from a dentist’s office that was remodeled from a residence—Hayley was sitting at the desk that had once been where the dentist’s receptionist sat, a book open and her nose buried in it. Other than the grunt of greeting she gave us as we entered, she barely noticed our arrival.
The first order of business was to get out of the damp swimsuit, which was becoming uncomfortable in the air conditioning Hayley insisted on blasting in the front room. Like me, Hayley wasn’t a local—someone born in Hawaii who wasn’t ethnically Hawaiian—but hailed from Michigan, and she seemed intent on recreating the climate she was accustomed to in our office. I wouldn’t be surprised if snow greeted us one day once winter came.
Once changed, I went back out to where Hayley was reading some gay romance fiction of some sort. The front of our office was nicely carpeted—a new one, since the old one was stained by the hordes of kids who’d presumably been forced to the office by their parents—and had nice, moderately priced furniture.
“Any phone calls this morning?” I asked.
“Nope.” Hayley didn’t even look up from the book.
“So another day with no work.”
That did make Hayley look up. “I don’t even know what it is you do here.”
I couldn’t tell if she was joking, and I didn’t know which I would find more annoying. “Sometimes I don’t either.”
“Feels good to get into dry clothes,” Grace said, joining Hayley and me. “No calls?” I shook my head. “Bummer.”
The nonchalant way she said that bugged me a bit, though I couldn’t say why. It might have something to do with how it was mostly my money at risk here.
“You do realize if we don’t work we don’t make money, right? All that effort we spent moving into this nice building would be wasted.”
“You worry too much.” Grace perched on the edge of Hayley’s desk. “Besides, we have a job.”
I raised an eyebrow. “We do? I thought we hadn’t had any calls.”
“There’s always beach guy.”
It took every ounce of strength in my body not to literally face-palm. “There is no way in hell we’re going to drive off to some address we don’t even know to meet up with some weirdo who propositioned us on the beach.”
“Why not? You said we need money, and this guy said it would be well-paying.”
“He didn’t quite say that,” I argued. “Besides, did anything about him scream money?”
“You’re actually considering turning down a paying job?” Hayley asked, closing her book to give me a skeptical look.
“It’s not a job offer,” I protested, resenting Grace more than I thought possible at that moment. “It was some random guy approaching us, flashing our picture and telling us to meet him at some completely random location. It wasn’t even written on a nice piece of paper, either,” I added, brandishing the crumpled receipt he gave me.
“What’s the address?” Grace asked.
“422 Ward Avenue,” I read off. “You know it?”
Grace thought for a moment, biting her lower lip in concentration. “Ward Avenue rings a bell, but no.”
“See?” I said, gesturing vehemently. “This is why we should not meet with Mr. Random Beach Man! We don’t even know what’s at the address he gave us.”
“It’s the Dustlight Motel,” Hayley supplied.
Grace and I were in perfect sync as we turned surprised glances on her. “How do you know that?”
Hayley turned her computer screen in reply, showing a Google Map of the area.
“Well,” Grace said, throwing an arm over my shoulder. “A run-down motel is pretty par for the course for us, so I trust you have no more objections, right?”
I groaned. She had me beat, and I knew it. We needed the money, and no matter what weird vibes I got from the man offering the job, it was an offer. We couldn’t afford to be picky. “There are days I hate this job.”
“Don’t be silly,” Grace chided, pushing me away from her. “You have to actually do a job to hate it.”
“It’s pretty crowded for one o’clock on a Tuesday,” I remarked as Grace turned her Jeep Wrangler into the parking lot of the Dustlight Motel. It looked precisely how I imagined it would—apart from the rather large number of cars in the parking lot. The building was two stories, shaped like a U written in block letters. Doors ran along the side we could see. Along the section connecting the other two I saw an ice machine, a vending machine, and two staircases. The room dead center was marked Office.
“It’s also nicer than some of the places we’ve caught people cheating at,” Grace added, turning off the engine and unbuckling her seatbelt. “Barely, but it is.”
I couldn’t really argue with her there, with the dirty alley and smelly garbage can still fresh in my mind, so to speak. “Even still, we don’t usually go to the dirty motel until after we’ve been given a job. This is a serious breach of protocol.”
Grace slapped my shoulder impatiently. “Would you please stop worrying so much? We’ve just come to talk; we haven’t agreed to the job, yet. Try to hide how much you hate this until we at least hear what he wants us to do, okay?”
“No promises,” I scowled, opening the Jeep’s door and stepping out of the car before she could hit me again. I started across the parking lot and then stopped, a very important realization dawning on me.
“Why are you just standing here in the parking lot?” Grace asked, looking at me as if I was crazy.
“Grace, we don’t know what room we’re supposed to meet in,” I pointed out to her.
“Oh. Shit.” Grace paused, pushing her designer sunglasses up on her head. “I guess we should just ask for him at the office.”
“We don’t know his name.”
“Shit. Well, we describe him to the guy and hope he’s seen him.”
I put my hands on my hips. “Do you remember what he looks like?”
“I was kind of hoping you did,” Grace said sheepishly.
I sighed, leaning my head back to gaze up at the sky, wishing that God would just let this ridiculous exercise in futility come to an end already. “The only descriptor that comes to mind right now is weird.”
“Yeah, me too. Do you think there’s any chance he’ll know who we’re talking about if we just say ‘a weird guy’?”
“Look at this place, Grace,” I said, gesturing at the motel with a wide sweep of my left arm. “Do you think weird is going to be enough?”
“I guess not.”
We stood there for a moment, needing to come up with a new plan. My hope was that the new plan involved going home and dialing random numbers in the phone book until we found someone who would need our services. I’d rather turn into a telemarketer than go door-to-door in this place hoping for the right guy to open up. I’d heard enough stories from Grace about the sordid sexual lives of cheaters in a place like this, and I didn’t want to see anything disgusting that I wasn’t being paid to see. I was pretty sure that my insurance plan through the company didn’t cover weekly therapy sessions.
Any hope I had of going back to the office was shattered by a voice calling out to us from one of the first-floor rooms near us on the right. “Hey! Hey, over here!” The strange man from the beach had the door barely open, his head poking out of it. He was jerking his head in what I assumed was meant to be a Come here gesture but only served to make him seem even crazier.
“See? We’re in luck. His room is right there.” Grace flashed me her most winning smile before hurrying across the parking lot toward the man.
“You won’t say we’re lucky when he’s murdering us in there.”
“You think everyone wants to kill us, Gabe. Then again, with what’s gone on with you since coming to Hawaii, I guess it’s understandable.”
We reached room one nineteen, and the man held the door open for us to slip inside. He closed the door behind me just moments after I stepped inside; it was no doubt my imagination, but I could have sworn I felt the door graze my heel.
The motel room was the same as most motel rooms: one simple queen-sized bed—complete with a scratchy comforter in the ugliest floral pattern that seemed to be reserved for cheap places like this—one closet barely big enough to fit more than two days’ worth of clothes, an old beat-up television that still had a VHS player built into it, and the world’s tiniest bathroom. In front of the window, a small coffee table that looked like it was more made of cardboard than wood sat, squeezed between two chairs that looked like they would fall apart the moment someone tried to sit in them.
The bed was unmade, the blankets tossed around, pillows wrinkled, and clothes were thrown on the floor carelessly. On the far side of the room, partially shielded from my sight by the bed, I could see bits of an opened suitcase, clothes sticking out wildly. A laptop was perched precariously on the edge of the nightstand, the clock, bulky phone, and a dinged-up lamp pushed aside to make room for it. There were several articles tacked up on a wall, pictures of what looked like World War II maps and a few travel maps of Hawaii.
“This is charming,” I remarked, pretty sure my eyebrows had disappeared into my hairline. “And not at all creepy.” Grace dug her elbow into my side. “Ow! Stop it.”
“Sorry the room is in, er, a bit of a state,” the strange man said, wringing his hands together as he looked at us. A long minute passed with him saying nothing. I clasped my hands in front of me, rocking on my feet and waiting for him to speak.
“Okay, Grace, we should really go,” I said after the man continued to say nothing.
“No, no, no,” the man said quickly, taking a step toward us. I grabbed Grace’s arm and pulled her back away from him, and he stopped, wide eyes showing how startled he was by my action. “I apologize for the smoke and mirrors and all the secrecy. I’m sure this must seem quite strange to you.”
“Yes,” I said while Grace said, “Not at all,” in a tone of voice that was completely unbelievable.
“Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Edwin Biers. I already know who the two of you are, of course, otherwise how would I have found you?” He let out a laugh that sounded just shy of manic to me. “Please, have a seat so we can talk business.”
I looked around for a safe place to sit. Edwin gestured toward the two chairs on either side of the table, as I’d been afraid he would. I eased myself into it slowly, testing it to see if it would manage to hold my weight. I wasn’t all that heavy, being closer to the skinny side of the spectrum than the toned side, but I was worried. The chair wobbled a bit beneath me, but other than that, it held fast. That might have been the first pleasant surprise of the day.
Edwin sat on the bed and crossed one leg over the other, resting his hands in his lap.
“What exactly is it you need from us, Mr. Biers?” Grace asked, not ungently, when the man didn’t seem to know where to go from sitting down. “We are a fully licensed and recognized private investigation firm, and we can offer a wide range of services—”
“I’m looking for treasure,” Biers said quickly, shocking Grace into silence.
I, however, had no problems finding my voice. The man was insane—there was absolutely no doubt of that in my mind. Driving here had been a huge waste of time and gas. Thank god it was Grace who drove.
“I’m sorry, did you say treasure?”
Biers nodded in a way that was altogether too excited for me.
“Yes! I am here in Hawaii right now tracking down a treasure that might be worth millions—maybe even tens of millions of dollars.”
I gave Grace the most incredulous look I could manage, and she shrugged in return. She didn’t have to say anything for me to know that she was thinking Just hear him out. I didn’t want to hear him out. I wanted a psychiatrist to hear him out, but not us.
“You’re…a treasure hunter?” Grace asked, hesitating as she looked for the right words.
Biers chuckled. “No, not like I’m sure you’re thinking. This is the only treasure I’m after—and I’ve been after it for three years.”