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Paul Levine

Riptide

CHAPTER 1

Dragon’s Teeth

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.

CHAPTER 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.

     

 

2011 - 2018