Mahu
by Neil Plakcy

an excerpt



The Rod and Reel Club


The exchange was set for six o'clock, under the arbor that ran between the zoo and the old aquatic stadium where Duke Kahanamoku swam for his records. By that time, as the sun was beginning its nightly drop into the darkening sea, there were still enough strollers and fishermen to provide cover, but not enough people to make the place crowded. I was dressed like a moke, in a grubby T-shirt from a surfing contest I'd lost years before, a pair of low-slung shorts and worn tennis shoes. I had a tattered backpack slung over one shoulder, and inside it were stacks of twenties and fifties that had been treated with fluorescent powder. I hadn't shaved for two days, and when an elderly couple wearing matching aloha shirts gave me a wide berth on the sidewalk along Kalakaua Avenue, I knew the look was complete.

Tourists were packing up on the beach, toting their blankets and suntan lotion back toward the motels and time shares on the mauka, or mountain, side of Kalakaua. Japanese businessmen were stopping in at the chic boutiques, using their strong yen to buy European designer goods for neglected families back home. And somewhere in the distance I heard the rattle of an ipu gourd and the pound of a pahu hula, a sharkskin drum. That meant a hotel or bar was starting its hula happy hour for the Midwesterners among us, a chance for grandpa to get up and dance the hula with a pretty wahine while grandma trained the videocam on him for the folks back home, and everybody got brightly-colored drinks with little umbrellas.

Across the street, I saw my partner, Akoni, a beefy Hawaiian who went through the academy with me. We were an odd-couple pair, me tall and slim, Akoni short and stout. He had more pure Hawaiian blood in him, and darker skin. My father was half Hawaiian and half haole, or white, so even with a deep tan I was still fairer than Akoni. He wore an XXL aloha shirt in a bright pink and red pattern, shorts, and tennis sneakers, and he looked like one of those guys at the beach who rent out the surfboards. He looked pointedly at his watch. I nodded slightly, and crossed the street diagonally at Kapahulu, past the lovely Hawaiian-style Denny's, with its second floor porch overlooking the beach, where you can get papaya with your Grand Slam breakfast.

I followed the shoreline under the big spreading banyan tree, walking along the beach called Queen's Surf, which ran alongside Kapiolani Park. There was a volleyball net on the beach, and then a breakwater, and then the beach got really narrow.

That narrow section was the gay beach. There were about a dozen guys on the sand there, even though the tide was coming in, bringing with it scattered leaves and seaweed. There were fat guys and fit guys, guys wearing everything from the briefest of thongs to double XL swim trunks. Another ten or fifteen guys sat on the grass and benches, one group on towels under a palm tree. A guy with both nipples pierced winked at me and I quickly looked offshore, where a snorkeler swam toward Diamond Head, as if he was heading to the same rendezvous I was. Beyond him a range of sailboats and fishing boats cruised the glowing water.

A kid on a skateboard zoomed past, then stopped nearly in front of me to practice a jump, which he missed. I was jittery and I wanted to yell at him, flash my badge and give him the kind of scare he'd given me, but I held back. I headed along the narrow walkway behind the zoo, trying to concentrate on the shallow blue-green water, think only about the barnacle-encrusted pipe that rests on the sea floor and stretches out toward the horizon, bringing in deep, pure water for the aquarium behind me. But it didn't work; I kept thinking of the bust.

Akoni was behind me. One of the fishermen along the shore, Lou See, was a member of the SWAT team, and he had a .357 Magnum in a shoulder holster under his baggy shirt, and a second in his creel. Evan Gonsalves, who was our link to the state's import cops, was at the end of the path, waiting to monitor my conversation on a radio. I knew Evan carried a five-shot Smith and Wesson Undercover .38, with a two-inch barrel. The two young lovers leaning against a tree were beat cops from the Waikīkī station, Lidia Portuondo and Alvy Greenberg, and I wondered idly if they were enjoying this assignment. I think they were both carrying Smith and Wesson .38s, too.

I walked along behind the aquarium, where the pavement had been patched roughly. A single guard dog barked among the refrigeration equipment, which was poorly camouflaged behind a cluster of succulent hinahina plants with scattered white flowers. The low susurrus of the surf ebbed and flowed through my consciousness, and I breathed deeply, smelling salt air, car exhaust, and the low, sweet perfume of coconut tanning oil.

The week before a source had told me about a shipment of heroin coming in from Mexico, a kind they call black tar. It was cruder than the heroin produced in Asia, and sold on the streets for up to $100 per quarter-gram. It was smoked rather than injected, and that made it easier to get into, especially for teenagers. I was about to buy a pound of the stuff, with a street value of $150,000. If I didn't screw anything up.

I got to the front of the stadium, by the big stucco gates sealed off with chain link fence, and waited. I looked up at the gates, thirty feet high, with Ionic pilasters and "The War Memorial" written on a lintel above. On either side of the Hawai‘i state seal above that were a pair of eagles, only the one on the Diamond Head side had lost his head, just a metal rod sticking up out of his neck. The gate was blocked with a chain link fence and signs that said "No Trespassing" and "Danger: Falling Rocks." Through the fence I looked out at the pool and the ocean beyond, waves breaking on the deep blue water, the dying sun glinting off the crests of the surf.

A battered blue pickup stopped at the curb, and the two Mexicans got out. When I met them at a seedy bar down near Fort DeRussy, they presented themselves to me as college kids on vacation, doing a favor for the boy's uncle. The boy, Pedro, had said it was a way to finance the trip. His girlfriend's name was Luz Maria, and she was the one I didn't trust. There was something cold about her mouth, a determination that was a little scary. I had the feeling she was along to keep Pedro in line.

As I started walking towards them, across the faded brown concrete worn down by sun and time, I heard a phone ring and saw the woman open up a portable cell phone. She spoke for just a moment, then turned to the man next to her and said something. They both turned and ran for the truck.

"Shit, something's gone wrong," I heard Evan say through my earpiece. Cops erupted from their hiding places and began to chase them, dodging mothers with strollers and tourists in aloha shirts so new they still had the original creases. I saw Luz Maria take the briefcase from Pedro and toss it in a high, sailing arc. It landed on the rail surrounding the truck bed, teetered there for an instant, and then fell into the bed. Almost simultaneously, the driver of the truck floored the engine and it squealed off down Diamond Head Road.

I was the closest, and I tackled Luz Maria just seconds after she threw away the briefcase. We scuffled for a minute, each of us struggling to get a purchase on the other. For those few minutes, everything moved in slow motion. I felt the sinews in her biceps, smelled her earthy scent, an accumulation of a day or two's sweat. I heard the crackle of a radio behind me and the noise of running footsteps.

I hadn't been that close to a woman in a long time. She twisted and turned under me, grinding her pelvis and breasts against me, simultaneously trying to get my gun and to knee me in the crotch. I outweighed her by fifty pounds and I was on top, but she was strong and lithe.

Then Akoni was there, wrestling her arms behind her back and into a pair of cuffs. I picked up her gun, a small .45, then stood up. I was still charged, feeling nothing but the rush of blood, the electric tension in my fingertips. I knew I'd feel the effects of that tackle the next day. I shook my arms out and did a couple of deep knee bends.

Evan had Pedro flat on the ground with his foot in the small of the college boy's back, and Lidia and Alvy were running along Diamond Head Road, trying to get a plate ID on the pickup. Lou See was already radioing in for the paddy wagon.

Lidia and Alvy returned, empty-handed, and took over custody of the two Mexicans. "Shit, what went wrong?" I asked, as Akoni, Evan, Lou and I sat down at one of the picnic tables.

"Looked like the woman got a tip off at the last minute," Lou said. "You saw her on the phone."

"Can we subpoena the phone records?" Evan asked. "Find out who called her?"

I shook my head. "Not without some supporting evidence," I said. "Peggy's not going to be pleased about this one."

Peggy Kaneahe, Assistant DA, was waiting for us at the main station downtown. I had a long history with her-we'd been high school sweethearts, and then broken up after our first year away at college. While I'd come back to Honolulu after four years in California, it had taken her longer, and she'd only returned about six months before, to take her current job. We'd started dating again, very casually, hadn't even gone to bed yet. As she'd put it, "In my job all I meet are cops and criminals. And if I'm going to date a cop it might as well be one I already know."

There was an edgy tension between us even at the best of times, as though she was just waiting for me to hurt her again, and that night we hardly talked except for the bare details of the failed bust. A couple of the guys decided to go to a cop hangout on Kuhio Avenue, a few blocks mauka from the beach, and I went along. Peggy declined to join us.

I spent some time talking to Evan Gonsalves, over the blare of rock and roll from the bar's speakers. It was nice there, under a thatched roof, with a cool trade wind fluttering the paper flyers on the table. Around us, couples cuddled in the shadows, and single men prowled the edges of the dance floor or stood idly around the well-lit bar.

"How's Terri?" I asked Evan. Seven years before, he had married Teresa Clark, whose grandfather had founded Clark's, the biggest department store chain in the islands. Nobody had been more surprised than I was. Terri and I had been friends in high school, but I'd always thought I was out of her league as boyfriend material. When she married a cop, the son of a Portuguese fisherman, I'd joined the crowd in wondering why.

Evan winced. "She worries a lot. You know." He leaned over closer to me, his beery breath in my face. "Sometimes, I wonder what more I can do for her. She deserves a hell of a lot more than I can give her."

Evan was a nice guy. He was handsome and well-built, with wavy black hair and intense eyes; he spoke well, and he was clearly on his way up in the police hierarchy. Like everybody else, I'd expected Terri to marry better, somebody with a mainland education and a lot of money. But so far, they'd seemed very happy, with a five-year-old boy they both doted on.

I didn't know what to say. Fortunately, at that point Akoni came over to say goodbye, to head back to his pretty little wife, and so Evan realized it was time for him to go too. A couple of the other single cops and I remained well after midnight, getting progressively drunker as we trolled for wahines.

At least that was what I told myself I was doing. I had a reputation in the department as a love 'em and leave 'em type, because I never seemed to settle down with a girl. It was trendy to pass such problems off as fear of commitment, and Akoni regularly got on my case about growing up and accepting my responsibilities. But I knew the problem went much deeper than that.

By two a.m. the cops who were still there had paired off with wahines, except for me. I wasn't interested in a wahine, and I was tired of lying to myself that I was. I hadn't really been in danger that day, but I could have been, and every time I sidestepped trouble I wondered, what if today had been my day? Was I ready to die? Had I lived my life the way I wanted to?

I was more than a little drunk, and horny too, and generally disgusted with myself. On the job, I was pretty fearless. I trusted my instincts, my weapons, and my backup. I went out and did what I had to do. In my personal life, it was a lot harder.

I dropped some money on the table for my beers, waved goodnight, and walked out into the cool velvety darkness. It had turned breezy, and clouds scudded across the canvas of the sky. I saw the crescent moon reflected in the darkened window of a shop that sold thousand-dollar Hawaiian shirts to Japanese tourists.

Unconsciously I found myself heading for the Rod and Reel Club. It was only a few blocks away, almost on my way home. There had been a couple of incidents of gay bashing outside the club in recent weeks, and I tried to tell myself I was just being a good neighborhood cop, checking out the scene and protecting the population. Right.

From the outside I could hear the thump of a bass line, and when the door opened and a couple of guys spilled out, their arms around each other, I heard the blast of rock and roll. I stood around outside for a couple of minutes, debating whether I should go in or not, and then said to myself, Shit, Kimo, don't be such a wimp, and walked inside.

The Rod and Reel Club was decorated like one of those old fishing lodges, wooden paneling and stuffed yellowfin tuna and amberjack on the walls. It had a very masculine feel, but on the walls where you'd expect to see pictures of guys with their fish, there were photos of guys in drag, guys kissing, guys dancing on tables in colored jockstraps.

My heart was pounding worse than it had that evening out behind the zoo. I walked up to the bar and ordered another beer, then found a piece of wall I could lean up against. The bar was partly enclosed and partly open-air. From where I stood, under the roof, I could look out to the patio and see long strands of white lights hanging from the high trees. There was a big-screen TV in the corner playing the videos that went with the music on the loudspeakers. At that moment they were playing Bob Seger's Old Time Rock and Roll, probably just so they could show Tom Cruise dancing in his underpants.

I didn't know what I was doing there. I was too scared of AIDS, and of facing the truth about myself, to pick anybody up. Maybe it was some kind of practice run for actually having a life, forcing myself to look in the mirror often enough so that someday I'd be able to look without hating myself. I had known I was attracted to guys since I was about twelve or thirteen, but except for some experimentation I had managed to ignore it. I'd created a personality for myself as a stud, forcing myself to go out night after night, dating and bedding women, hoping the next one would be the one who could change me.

One of the last women I dated was a Wisconsin high school phys ed teacher in her mid-twenties, on spring break with a couple of college friends. There wasn't an ounce of fat on her, and she was very athletic in bed, too. It scared me how much I was attracted to her biceps and strong calves. I found myself fantasizing she was a man, and we had the best sex I'd ever had with a woman. It scared the hell out of me.

As my eyes got accustomed to the darkness I started checking out the other guys. The bar was halfway between the dance floor and the patio. About a dozen guys were dancing to the pounding beat, and there were another dozen or so clustered around the bar. There were a few mixed couples, and a few groups of guys seated in the plastic chairs out on the patio.

I took my Longboard Lager and made a slow circuit of the bar and patio area. A gray-haired guy, in his sixties maybe, cruised the room counterclockwise to me, and I had to look away every time we passed. There was a cute guy in a rugby shirt leaning up against a palm tree, but he never seemed to look my way. It was easy to find excuses not to talk to anyone. No one seemed able to make eye contact with anyone else, and none of the guys who stood alone appealed to me. One was too thin, another too fat. I couldn't talk to the guy in lime-green bell-bottoms and tank top because he looked too faggy. The two beefy guys in muscle shirts looked too mean, and too caught up in each other anyway.

At the side of the bar there was a long hallway. The first two doors I saw were clearly marked Kane, for men, and Wahine, for women. There were other doors, though, farther down the hall, and every now and then someone would come or go down the hallway, and I didn't want to know what was going on back there. Or rather, I did want to know, desperately, but I wouldn't let myself admit it. I found a place by the patio wall where I could see what was going on in the bar, on the patio, and down the hallway. I cradled my beer like it was my only friend, and watched, and waited. A really buffed guy in a tank top kept going in and out of the hall, and two Japanese guys holding hands went back there and disappeared.

About half of the guys standing around the bar wore their hair just a little too short or their mustaches a little too trimmed, but others looked like guys you'd see on the street. I started to feel more like there was a chance I might fit in here someday. Of course, it was kind of sad seeing all these guys who couldn't connect with each other, and striving on my part just to get to that level, where I was comfortable enough with myself and my sexuality to stand around in a room full of gay men and not feel desperately awkward.

I was almost through my second lager when a guy came up to me. I was still dressed in my moke outfit, still hadn't shaved. He was tall and thin, gawky as a giraffe, his head shaved so that only a blond stubble remained. He almost passed me, then leaned up close to my ear and whispered, "I like it rough." His tongue grazed the outside of my ear.

I shivered, and pushed away. Suddenly I knew I had to get out. If I didn't I'd do something, I wasn't sure what. I might follow the giraffe into a back room, or punch his lights out, or tear off my clothes and jump up onto a table and dance. I dropped my empty bottle on a table and nearly ran for the door.

Outside, I stood next to a lamp post, gulping moist warm air. A wave of traffic passed on Kuhio Avenue, and a guy in a Miata with the top down cut off a Ford Explorer to make a sharp left. The Ford blasted his horn. My heart was racing again and my hands were shaking. The door to the club opened, and the giraffe stepped outside. I caught his eye, shook my head, and walked around the corner. I found a place in the shadows and slumped against the wall, facing the back door of the club.

The giraffe didn't follow, and I was grateful. It was nearly three, and I was due on the second watch at eight in the morning. If I went home now, I could sleep for a couple of hours, and then get out onto the surf by first light. Just me, my board, and the ocean, and I could feel better. I knew I could.

I was almost ready to start home when I heard the sound of somebody dragging something down the alley. I thought it was a manager dragging a trash can out to the street, until I rounded the corner and saw him bent down low. When he reached the shelter of a kiawe tree by the street, he turned and ran back up the alley. I heard a car door open and then slam closed, and then a black Jeep Cherokee swung out of the alley behind the club, fishtailing a bit as the driver made his turn. I figured the driver was probably running away from somebody he'd met at the bar. I knew how he felt.

Then I saw the body.

I looked up, making the connection between the dragging sound and the hurried driver, but it was too late; the car had already made the turn onto Kuhio and it was gone. I was kicking myself for my slow reactions as I leaned over the guy. Even in the dark, I could see the blood already pooling beneath his head. I felt his neck for a pulse, and couldn't get one. "Shit," I said out loud.

I wasn't carrying my cell phone, so I had to jog to the corner, looking for a pay phone. There wasn't one. It was two blocks before I could find one that worked. I dialed 911, and covered the mouthpiece of the phone with my T-shirt. "I want to report a murder," I said, mumbling but trying to get the words out. "Behind the Rod and Reel Club on Kuhio Avenue."

The operator asked, "May I have your name, sir?"

I wanted to go back to the guy in the alley. I didn't want him to be alone. And I knew that as the first officer on the scene I ought to investigate, secure the area. Most crimes are solved within the first twenty-four hours, and I'd been given a golden opportunity to be in at the start of the investigation.

But I didn't want to explain what I was doing back there, long after I'd left my buddies. I spent my time looking for the truth behind other people's lives, but I wasn't prepared to look so closely at my own. After all, despite whatever had happened in my past, I was dating a woman. I was still trying. So despite everything I knew I ought to do, I hung up the phone.

There was a light breeze sweeping through the trash along the side of the street. I pulled off my T-shirt and used it to wipe the sweat from my forehead. I started to jog for home, hoping the breeze could blow away my sins.