By Robert E. Schorry
Nick Christopher, the new head of Security at Robin's Nest, carries secrets and burdens. Those secrets mean that someone is blackmailing him. Of course he turns to Thomas Magnum for help…
Chapter 1 – Morning Swim
I remember very well the first time I saw Nick Christopher. He was arrogant and probably nervous too. Who knew what sort of stories Higgins had filled his head with? He was most likely looking at me wondering if Thomas Magnum was a devil or an angel. Maybe I was some uneasy combination of the two? He had stared at me through the gates of Robin's Nest, almost daring me to enter. But I did dare, and now I was back on O'ahu, at least for a time.
That was last October and I had returned to Hawai'i with the summons of Robin Masters. That trip led me to be living in the beach house at Robin's Nest gain, at least for a while. Meanwhile Robin was back on the mainland working on a screenplay. Higgins was still… Higgins - and some things were much as they had been a long time ago.
Nick Christopher was six feet tall and slim, with tanned skin and sandy hair. His biceps showed that he worked out. Hazel eyes that shifted up, down, back and forth. Always searching. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was twitchy. Maybe he was seeing things that only he could see.
I took a good look at him as he limped out of the surf. The thin scars on his left hand were visible as white lines against the tan. A red blotchy mark on his neck extended down onto his chest. He had smaller patches on his left hip and knee. The marks made an ugly contrast with his green swim trunks. They would very likely last a long time, along with the memories.
He favored his left foot as he moved up the beach from the surf line. That foot wasn't pretty, but it worked. An improvised explosive device in a dusty hell-hole Afghan village had gone off under that foot. Some militant fighter had tried to turn him into hamburger or worse. They had failed in the attempt. But here he was, limping up the beach, until he marched to his towel and his aluminum cane, stuck upright in the sand. He grabbed it with his right hand and lowered himself to sit. He snatched up a pair of GI wrap-around sunglasses and stuck them on his face. Then he turned to me. "How long?"
"How long have you been watching me Tom?" His soft Texas drawl was quiet, but it carried.
"Just long enough to see you swim from one end of the pahonu to the other in three and a half minutes. And do it four more times without stopping. The last time you made the distance in four and a half minutes." The pahonu was the ancient turtle pen built by a Hawaiian king. It lay off shore and was over 100 yards long along the shore.
He grinned at me as I sat on the seawall in the shade. "Not bad, eh?"
"Not bad at all Nick." I took off my sunglasses, walked into the water, and began swimming laps.
Chapter 2 – Catching Up
Higgins had hired Nick last year. Perhaps Robin Masters had engineered things so that Nick was found acceptable to Jonathan Qualye Higgins III. Higgins was getting on in years, was tending his orchids more and more, and also burying himself in the Main House study to work on his memoirs. Nick had taken over much of the Security operations at the Nest, but I could tell that Higgins still ruled, or at least thought he did. It seemed to me that Higgins was the brain and Nick was the legs of the set-up. If it worked for Robin, that was OK with me.
After the mysterious summons by Higgins to return to the island in October, and solving the puzzle of who had kidnapped Robin Masters, I had stayed on. I found someone to keep an eye on my condo in Virginia Beach, I had the beach house to live in, and of course I had a car. The red Ferrari 308 GTB that Robin owned had been fixed up by T.C.'s techs and it was now mine. A very gracious gift of Robin Masters himself.
What I would do with the silly car was hard to figure. It was a great gift from Robin, but the way traffic looked in Honolulu, it was hard to get the thing out of third gear on the H3 highway. A fun car to drive, it always turned heads, and the car and I fit like a glove. Granted the seat was hard and my head brushed the roof when it was on, but the car made me feel younger - not that I am that old. I had seen my share of tough times, too numerous to count. I fingered the bullet scar on my left shoulder. My body looked like a roadmap to Surgery 101 in some areas, not that different from Nick's.
How many times had I been shot, stabbed, beaten, or knocked down? How many times had I lied, told the truth, or lost friends over the years? It didn't have to make sense – it was just the way my life had gone. Sometimes I sailed the ship - other times I was adrift. The story of my life. Even when things seemed to be stable, there was always some cock-eyed case I was involved in. But through it all I had my friends – TC, Rick, Higgins, and for the last twenty years my daughter Lilly.
Chapter 3 – Dead Man's Letter
After the morning swim, Nick left to run some errands and I pretty much goofed off. It was Saturday and I'd just hung up the phone after calling my daughter Lilly. She was completing a PhD in Marine Biology at UC San Diego on a project on the regenerative powers of sea cucumbers. I had gone to San Diego and visited at Christmas with Lilly and her boyfriend. He was a nice guy and I wondered what their future would hold? When you're 26, almost 27, can any of us know what our future is? Lilly was fine with her current arrangement and so was I.
When I was 27 I was still in the US Navy and all I knew was a rule book and rows of Naval Intelligence offices filled with khaki uniformed officers just like me. I also carried a weight of memories, some too painful to recall. Gunfire from the jungle, rain and mud, black nights, shivering with cold, and the rough bamboo bars of a tiger cage. That was a score that was settled about ten years later.
I heard footsteps and the tapping of a cane as Nick came up the steps of the beach house. "Magnum, you home?"
"Yeah, Nick. I'm on the porch! Come up!"
Nick settled into one of the cane-backed cushioned chairs on the porch. He looked like he had seen a ghost. I didn't know the guy that well, but it was pretty obvious something was going on. I decided to play it slow and easy. I think the technique is on page 37 of my book.
"So, Nick, whatcha been up to?"
"Oh, nothing much. Went into town and got the brakes on my car adjusted. The rear ones squeak."
"Yeah, it's all the salt air. Corrodes the brakes and they stick. Drum brakes are the worst. Especially when you don't drive your NX very much. What say we go for a ride right now?"
"Now? But I just got back. Higgins wants me to…"
I shook my head sadly. "Nick, Higgins will always have something for you to do. Whether you need to do it right now is between you and him. But I guess it's not urgent, or he would have said so."
He looked at the sea and sky, the waves breaking on the reef. It was a little cool today, but the water was still warm. We hadn't had much rain this February, yet. "Ok. I'll meet you at the gate," and he limped off.
Nick's Nissan hatchback two-door was a little long in the tooth, but it ran well. Nick greased the beige car through the gates and turned right, heading up the coast. We had the windows down and the air felt nice. Nick was making great time. I didn't know where we were going, but I don't think he did either. He started to take curves faster and faster so I wrapped my right hand around the helper handle under the roof. Nick had a way of charging into the apex of the turn then tromping on the brakes. There would certainly be no rust left on the brakes after this ride. I was waiting for the rear end to slide as he wrestled the car through the turns. Not much finesse.
"You know Nick this car doesn't need to be wrestled through the turns. Let the front wheels pull it through, and don't keep tromping on the brakes in the apex or you'll spin it." I could teach him a few things, at least about handling cars. "The Ferrari would bite you badly if you tried that."
Nick humphed a bit but his driving steadied.
We tooled along for ten minutes then he slowed and turned of into one of Hawai'i's many beach parks. There weren't many cars in the lot in February but I knew this park and it was a nice beach. Mostly open sand with a few trees at the edge of the paved lot. He stopped and turned off the engine. "Come on Magnum, let's go over to that wall." He reached behind the seat and picked up a large white envelope, one of those slick tear-proof envelopes you can buy in any office store or the Post Office.
I levered myself out of the car and followed him to a low wall bordering the parking lot. Nick perched himself on the wall, facing the beach, letting his eyes swing to the ocean. I put my rear on the lava rock wall, wincing as sharp points dug into my tail.
"Sorry, Tom." He looked at the ocean, the sand, the sky, then finally at me. "Here." And handed me the white envelope.
The tear strip on the short side was open. A printed label carried Nick's name and the Robin's Nest address. No return address. But the postage meter imprint read the past Wednesday. I gave Nick a questioning look.
"Go ahead. Look at it. I need you to read it."
Inside was a letter on white bond paper - typical computer paper. I read this on the page:
In spite of your best efforts I have found you! Almost seems like you were trying to hide. But find you I did. I'll bet you thought you'd never hear from me ever again, did you?
Buddy, you know that you can't hide or run away.
We both know what you saw and what you did!
And you know what I want.
What do you think you should pay for your crimes?
That was the end of it. "Who is this guy, Nick?"
"There was this guy in our outfit. Back in Helmand Province. Two weeks to the day before I got this. " and he waved his injured left foot around, "Old Dog got killed."
"Who was he?"
"Old Dog wasn't anybody in particular. In our squad we all had nicknames. I was christened Pretty Boy unless I was called Doofus. But Old Dog… well, that was a special name." He took a deep breath. "That's what we called whoever took point. The name floated around. We all took turns on point. You know, the guy who gets to walk first into a village, across a field, or into a building."
"Yeah, I do know." The rituals of armed conflict were the same from my grandpa's time to Vietnam or Afghanistan. Taking point, or being the point man, was always dangerous. First one to get shot at, step on a booby trap, or to see the enemy. "Why would this guy send you this threatening letter?"
Nick slammed his cane on the wall. "He wouldn't! He can't! Because he's dead!!!"
Chapter 4 – Soldiers
Nick lifted the cold soft drink to his mouth and poured it in. We were sitting at a shave ice stand near the beach park. I was working on a Hawaiian Special smoothie – vanilla ice cream with pineapple and mango. As I slurped up the last drops Nick crumpled his empty cup and launched it straight into a garbage can twenty feet away.
"Pretty good shot Nick."
"Well, I used to play a lot of basketball - volleyball and tennis too. Guess swimming is my fall back sport from now on."
"Well from what I saw this morning, you got that sport nailed." I stared into the depths of my smoothie. "Tell me about it Nick."
"You want to hear it?"
"Yes, Nick. I want to hear it. All of it."
Nick poked at a seashell lying on the table. "That's the third letter I've gotten. They all read about the same."
"Tell me about it."
"South of Lakshar Gah, the provincial capital og Helmand Province, there was this dinky village. Karahl Kosh or something like that. It's as flat as a table there – the land is criss-crossed with irrigation canals from the rivers. Thousands of these little canals each just deep enough for the bad guys to hide in. Not much brush and no trees. Mostly farmers, living in those adobe houses - each a large compound. The British Marines had cleared the area out at first and our special squad went in to check out some leads. Our job was to find two guys for questioning. We thought the bad guys were coming back into the area, and these dudes were their lead team. We were bivouacked in a falling down building and we worked with an Afghan translator. The walls were adobe bricks and part of the roof was gone. Dust and dirt everywhere. When we'd pull off our boots to change socks, our boots were filled with this fine brown dust. Got into everything. Even each bite from an MRE was crunchy. Made all of us sick after a while." He paused and sniffed, sat motionless then rubbed his face.
I reached over and punched his arm. "Come on Nick, stay with me."
"You understand, don't you?" He looked at me and his eyes were wet. "You do?"
Oh yes. Nick had no idea. "Yes, I do. I've been there." There were moments when the past could reach out and grab me like it was yesterday. I was almost forty years older than Nick, and those scary moments can still chew me up. Nick Christopher was no different.
The kid took a long breath and started again. "Ok, back to my story. So we did all the usual patrol stuff for a couple days, and then acted like we were pulling out for good. Drove out of town at sunset in our three Humvees. We drove out a couple kilometers, waited for the dust to settle, then went back on foot. It was a very dark night. No moon and some clouds. But night-vision goggles let us see just fine. We put out flankers, and hearing scraping noises, crept back towards our bivouac. I could see three guys digging into the hardpan of the courtyard. Pretty obvious what they were up to – leaving the next GIs a nice little present. They plant those IEDs almost everywhere. This one was right inside the compound doorway. Cute."
I watched Nick as he told the story, almost like describing a baseball play. Sequential; in order. I knew what would come next. The story was dramatic. I also knew that there was no moral like a neat and tidy fairy tale.
"Old Guy on this little patrol was Joe Starck. He was a big, burly guy from Oregon. I think from near Portland. Talked real slow but he had a wicked sense of humor. One time in training he pulled the batteries out of the whole squad's flashlights, just so we'd get gigged during the night maneuver. Man was the drill instructor mad! Joe said he did it to see how bad they would punish us. Well we found out that night and for the next two. Extra duty. Anyway, Joe stuck his head around the corner of the house. Perfectly placed to see into the doorway. He leaned against the wall and that's when the secondary charge went off, head high."
Nick grimaced. "At least it was quick. And I hate to say it, but it almost felt good to ice those bad guys in the next few seconds when Joe bought it."
I knew that feeling – the surge of anger and revenge mixed with shock and sadness. "Nick, why would anyone send you these letters? Do they think you have money, is that it?"
He snorted. "Money? You've got to be joking. My pension doesn't amount to very much, and you would not believe the medical bills after I got out of the Army, in spite of the VA clinics. I spent most of what I had moving here - I thought the weather would be nice and it is. But money? Don't make me laugh."
"You have no real money. Could this be revenge of some kind?"
"Revenge - from a dead guy?" He rubbed his face again. "Nah." Next he looked at the ground. "You know that was the last time our squad called the point man Old Guy. We retired that nickname right then because Joe would never get any older." He lifted his face to mine. "So, Thomas Magnum - Private Investigator," and he mocked me a bit with his words, "How can a dead man mail me a letter?"
How indeed? My little voice was telling me this was not going to be easy. But someone else was knew this story or heard about it in a bar or a barracks. Had somebody else seen something that dark night? I had to ask Nick. "The letter said you saw something. What?"
"Not a thing Magnum. Not a damn thing."
"Are you sure?"
He looked at me across the picnic table with steady eyes. "I think so."
Chapter 5 – Investigation 101
Nick gave me the other letters. Same kind of note with variations. Same tear-strip white plastic envelope – all mailed with no return address and the postmark was all by postage meter, and all on a Wednesday. I carried them to the beach house and sealed them into a clear plastic bag. I didn't have any current friends in the Hawaii PD, but I knew someone who probably did. And if the police were no help, this friend always had connections.
As I wrote in my book How to be a World-Class Private Investigator, you have to start with the simple stuff. The so first thing was finding out where the letters were mailed.
I picked up the Ferrari and cruised downtown onto Kalakaua Avenue to Rick Wright's new condo development. This was where Robin Masters had been 'taken' in the bogus kidnap last October. I'd noticed the clouds were building that morning and had left the roof on the Ferrari. I was right, it was pouring rain by the time I got out of the car. It was the rainy season after all. I parked in the very same parking spot in the hotel garage. It looked like in not very long, Rick's place would be open. I had seen a huge banner on the front of the building shouting 'The Wright Place – Opening Soon!' I had a feeling the Hilton Hawaiian across the street would not be happy with that garish sign.
Orville 'Rick' Wright was holding court in the sales office off the lobby. The building was a long way from the rundown and ground down scene from the Fall. The filthy carpet and grimy paint were long gone replaced with up to date fixtures. A fountain sprayed water from a polished bronze statue of Namaka the sea goddess. A cool blue light played over her features as fish swam around her feet. Across the fountain, her younger sister Pele, goddess of fire, perched on the edge under a red lamp. I hoped that Rick wasn't summoning a celestial war between the two sisters. The primal battle of sea and volcanoes had given birth to these islands, and that battle would never be over.
A pretty wahini wearing a red lei greeted me, her white teeth flashing against her brown skin. Her name tag read Leilani of course. "Aloha, sir! May I offer you a tour of the condominium model?" she held out a handful of pamphlets, I'm sure touting the glories of the place.
I looked down at my worn docksiders, faded jeans and red parrot shirt. I didn't look like much of a high-roller, but she had seen me drive up in a Ferrari. If she only knew how low my checking account was. "Aloha! No thank you. I actually wanted to speak to Mr. Wright."
"I'll see if he is available, sir." She turned and wiggled her way into Rick's office, where I could see him glad-handing an older couple. I looked around the lobby and while there weren't many prospective customers, it looked like Rick had staffed the place well. All the bright young people were clearly primed to sell. The woman escorted the older couple into another office, while Rick stared after them with monetary lust. Then he turned to me.
"Thomas Magnum, come on in," he said as he retreated into his office. "And close the door after you."
Rick was wearing a nice suit, his black shoes reflected up, and his hair had been freshly dyed and cut. At least there were fewer gray hairs than the last time I saw him. Rick's office was nice - very nice, but not too nice. He wouldn't want to scare away the clients with too much opulence. I followed the former Army door gunner and asked myself if the young Rick could have every imagined himself of today. Probably not. He was very impressive in the year 2010.
I closed the door and Rick pointed me to a chair as he sat behind his desk. He looked like a man who had gone eight rounds in a ten ring boxing bout. He sagged a bit but brightened up. "What I can I do for you? Interested in a condo? I've got a special going on tenth floor units!"
"No, Rick, I'm not here to buy a condo, at least not today. How are things going?"
"Oh, you know. Cleo's off to the Mainland with her sister. She needed a break from the tropics. So I thought I'd come in here on a Saturday and move some units. We've sold quite a few in spite of the economy. Almost meeting our weekly goals… I think."
"Rick, things will pick up. Give it time! The last time I saw this place it looked like a bomb had gone off. Looks to me like you've pulled off a miracle."
"Well, tell that to the bank. Those bloodsuckers are bleeding me on interest rates until I get fifty percent sold. Almost there too - if I can get a break." He buried his head in his hands. "All the woes of the business man. But you didn't come here to talk about this stuff." He gave me a disgusted look and then said, "You need something."
You can't fool an old friend. "Yes, I do," and flipped the bag with the blackmail envelopes and letters in it across the desk.
"What the heck is this?" He held it up to the light. "Crime samples?"
"Sort of. Nick Christopher has a little problem." I filled Rick in on the details.
"Sheesh!" Then he laughed loudly. "And you want me to do what, become CIS: Rick? Come on, Thomas."
"No. I need someone to dig into his background. See what the Army says about him. And maybe you have a connection at the Post Office?"
Rick shook his head. "I might as well. I get awfully tired of smiling at marks. My sales staff can usually close the deal. I'm just the color man." He held up the envelope again. "I'll see what I can do." He dug around in the desk and pulled out an old Rolodex. "Wait a minute." He flipped through the thing and pulled out a card, transferring the information to a sticky-note. "Here call this number. And if she asks, you didn't get this number from me."
"Thanks Rick!" I took the note reading a name, number and a title of Postal Inspector. "Sending me through regular channels, Rick? I'm surprised at you."
"No, not regular at all. This will cost you a dinner when Cleo gets back. End of next week. Pick someplace nice."
I left the condo building holding the note and the envelope and called the phone number when I got to the car.
Chapter 6 – Investigation 201
I've found that when calling informants, it was always best to be honest - tends to reduce hard feelings down the road. The note read Margarita Barzkoff. She answered on the first ring. "Hello. Barzkoff." A warm voice. Young or old I couldn't tell.
"Ms. Barzkoff, hello, my name is Thomas Magnum, and I have a question about a possible blackmail letter received by my client."
"Magnum? What a minute! Wasn't there a Thomas Magnum who was a detective out here back in the late 80s?" she said with a hint of scorn.
"Investigator, Private Investigator. Yes there was and I am one and the same. Can you help me? What channels should I go through?" All I heard was silence for a moment. "Inspector Barzkoff, are you still there?"
"Who gave you this number? It wasn't that stinker Orville Wright, was it?"
This time the voice was not so warm. "You'd better meet me."
Postal Inspector Barzkoff agreed to meet me at a restaurant outside of Pearl City. I ran over there from Waikiki and in thirty minutes, in spite of traffic, I was sitting in a booth when she came in. The door opened and a tall figure blocked the sunlight, which was fighting with rain clouds. I'd described myself to her, and she came right to the booth. Margarita Barzkoff was a tall Caucasian with dark hair and brown eyes. Well built and pretty. She was maybe early forties and her carriage said don't fool with me, not that I intended to. She was wearing what might be called business casual in the Islands; high heels, fitted slacks, and a conservative shirt. She wore her long hair pulled into a pony tail. We shook hands and she sat. She ordered a burger, with extra onions and iced tea. I ordered a Hawaiian burger with extra grilled pineapple and a side of sweet potato fries. Ice water to drink.
After the waitress left she sized me up and after a few moments said "Thomas Magnum, I did some checking up on you, but I had heard of you already."
"Oh? How had you heard of me ?"
"I have my ways." She smiled prettily. "And call me Rita." She let me chew a bit on that and then she laughed. "A long time ago you came to our high school class and talked on career day. I remember you very well – made quite an impression. It almost made me want to become a detective, or investigator as you call it."
I had a dim recollection of TC setting that session up through a knothole baseball league connection of his. "That must have been about 1985, 86 or so?"
"Yeah, I was a senior." She looked at me long and hard. "You might say that's why I became a Postal Inspector. Not quite a private investigator," she stressed the last word, "but close. I'll show you mine, if you show me yours!" She giggled as she opened her purse and pulling out a slim wallet, flipped it open displaying a gold shield and official ID. Her picture looked a more stern than the pretty person across the table. I knew that the Postal Inspection Service had their own federal officers, and they were empowered to do lots of things involving the safety and security of the US mail.
I could only counter with my P.I. license which I had recently renewed according to Hawai'i state regulation HRS463. I handed her my Virginia driver's license for good measure.
Rita inspected my credentials closely. "Virginia?"
"I'm thinking of moving back here permanently. But for the moment…" I held up my hands.
"I see." She gave me back my IDs then put her badge away. "So Mr. Magnum..."
"Please call me Tom."
She smiled; it was a very nice smile. "Tom, now that we have the paperwork out of the way, tell me about your problem with the US Mail and why you called me."
Our meals came as I was starting the tale, so we ate and talked about the weather, her work, my old work, and so on. Rita had grown up near Marine Corps Base Hawaii on the windward side. Her mom and dad, since deceased, had worked on the base near Kaneohe. After college and training with the Postal Service, she had been assigned to the O'ahu post after a long stint in Texas, where, as she put it, the drug smugglers would do anything and everything to get their shipments through, including using fake postal trucks, which she had been called in to investigate. After learning about how she and the other Feds had taken out that little drug operation, I turned the discussion back to Nick and his problem.
The burgers were good, but long gone as I spun out the tale of Nick and his apparent blackmailer. She looked long and hard at the envelopes and letters.
"May I keep these for a while?"
"Of course. All I was hoped for was a little help on the postage meter mark. Where was it mailed from?"
She examined the machine imprint through the plastic bag then steepled her long fingers and looked over them at me. "Tom, I can't just pull the info you want without a warrant. And it does not seem that a crime has been committed, at least not yet."
"But when they ask for money? If they want money." I wasn't certain on that point.
She smiled and said, "Then the Postal Inspection Service will be very interested." Rita drew circles in a puddle left by the water on her iced tea glass. "In fact, perhaps, we would be very interested right now."
Maybe there was a chink in the armor? "How so?"
She smiled that nice smile again. "You say that Nick is a decorated wounded veteran? I feel certain that I can make an unofficial inquiry. We Feds like to take care of our own."
"One more thing…"
I smiled my nicest smile. "Why don't you like Orville Wright? I think you used the word, stinker."
She grinned back. "Oh that! It's an old story. I'll tell you someday."
"How is it that you're working on a Saturday?"
"The number you called is my cell phone. I was at home when you called."
I had to ask.
Chapter 7 – Higgins Relates
I drove away from the meeting feeling that I had made a valuable contact on this case. Rita gave me a hearty wave as she pulled away, her gray Mercedes giving an austere look to a very pretty woman.
As I drove back to the coast, I had to ask myself if Nick might be hiding something. And what about money? Did he have a big stash that someone knew about? And what would he pay me? Nick and I hadn't discussed money - in fact he assumed that I would take the case right away. Seems that we were finding ways to rely on one another. I drove back to Robin's Nest and called it a day. I scrounged up some dinner and was watching the Winter Olympics on TV when I heard a knock at the door. I went up the stairs to find Higgins waiting patiently.
"May I come in?"
"Sure, Higgins, come in." He followed me down the stairs and I couldn't help but notice that he was moving slower than usual. "Are you alright, Higgins?"
He slumped on the couch. "Yes. Perhaps a bit stiff." He looked around the guest house. "I see you have made yourself at home, just like old times."
"Pretty easy to do. To what do I owe this visit?"
Jonathan looked at the TV for a few seconds. "I understand that Nick has asked you to look into a bit of trouble?"
"Yes, Nick talked to me about it. Did he fill you in?"
Higgins shook his head. "No. And I did not ask, either." He pointed to the Gauguin over the kitchen table. "The girls seem to approve of your return."
"Yes, they have been very nice about my staying." We were referring to the Gauguin painting of the two women that Robin Masters bought from a street vendor in Papeete. At least I hadn't heard any complaints from the ladies.
Higgins turned to me. "Magnum, I could tell that Nick was bothered about something, but the poor boy clearly didn't feel that he could talk to me about it." He stood. "But I am glad that he felt that that he could talk to you. Let me shake your hand."
This was a side of Higgins that was rare. So we shook. "Sure, Jonathan. Glad to help Nick out."
Higgins turned to the stairs.
I waved to the TV where they were showing snowcapped vistas around Vancouver. "I was just watching the Olympic coverage. Care to join me?"
Higgins gave me a long look. "Yes. That would be splendid, Magnum." He came to the couch and eyed the beer in my hand. "Whatever are you drinking?"
"Just a Dusseldorf."
"Ghastly stuff. I don't suppose…"
"Let me look." I went to the fridge and pulled out a bottle that I was sure he would like. I popped the cap and slapped a cold Guinness into his age-freckled hand.
"Ah. "He ran his hand along the cold glass. "I see you've never gotten over this bloody American habit of keeping beer cold." But he took a drink anyway. "Takes me back to my subaltern days." The TV reporter was expounding on downhill skiing. He went on. "Say, Thomas, did I ever tell you about the time I was skiing with the Prince of Wales in Garmisch? It must have been 1959. We were at the top of the Zugspitze, having just exited the gondola, and his Royal Highness turned to me and said…"
So we passed a pleasant evening.
Chapter 8 – Investigation 301
I took Sunday off the case, but on Monday morning Rita called. I was glad to hear her voice.
"Tom? It's Rita Barzkoff."
"Hi, Rita! Have you found out anything?" I'd just finished a shower after my morning run and swim. Nick had lapped me several times in the tidal pool. He was fast and getting faster in the water.
"Yes, I have." I could hear real satisfaction in her voice. "The postage meter info on all three letters came from one of those office supply stores that offer mailing services. You see there it's all in the numbers. Every postage meter has a code number and all I had to do was access the master database. Got a pen?"
The clock read nine oh five - Rita was working fast. I scribbled the address on a legal pad by the phone. "Wow! Thanks a lot! Great work."
"Tom?" spoke Rita.
She cleared her throat. "Needless to say, I didn't give you this information. But it will cost you all the same."
What would the piper demand in payment? "Ok, shoot."
Rita cleared her throat again. She sounded nervous. "Well, I'd like a copy of your book. Autographed please."
I laughed. "I guess I could come up with one." I looked at a shelf over the TV and there sat a few copies of my book How to be a World Class Private Investigator. I hadn't brought them from Virginia when I returned to Hawai'i in October. Higgins brought the books to the beach house on New Years Day. He had muttered something about straightening out the study in the main house.
I thanked Rita and we made nebulous plans to meet later in the week. The office store was in the community of Hawaii Kai, so I got dressed and went over there.
The office supply store was in a strip mall. One long single story building painted beige with discreet signs on the front, it could have held a warehouse, doctor's office, or almost anything; all part of the blandification of America. Inside it held the usual wares for offices, from candy to computers and paperclips. In the rear of the store was a small cubicle; the mailing section. A young guy was manning the counter.
"Good morning. May I help you?" He seemed awfully chipper for a Monday morning.
"Thanks. Yes, I was wondering about mailing items from here. Do you do a lot of business?"
"Well, I suppose we do. There are two office buildings around the corner. We probably do a fair amount from there. But most is walk-in." He frowned. "Why are you asking?"
I slid my P.I. license and a business card across the counter. "I'm a Private Investigator and I'm looking for who might be sending mail like this." I held up a white envelope, a duplicate of Nick's, I had found with the mailing merchandise on a rack. "It gets mailed from here every Wednesday."
The kid blanched. "I think you'd better talk to my boss. Andrea, got a minute?"
Andrea, who was a woman with red hair and green eyes arrived and I explained my errand. She looked long and hard at my P.I. license and fingered my business card warily. She seemed to be older than her thirty-something looks would indicate. "Mr. Magnum, look, I'm not sure I should be talking to you about this."
"My client is receiving, well, let's say, uncomfortable mail. It's sent in this kind of envelope, from here." I hoped she wouldn't ask how I found that out. "I just want to talk to the sender. That's all."
Andrea looked at the kid again. "Kevin, I think you'd better let me take over. Why don't you go help restock in aisle eleven?"
Kevin left and Andrea looked me square in the eye. "Ok, buddy. What's going on?"
I gave her my best smile. "I have a client who is being blackmailed. The person who is sending the letters is sending them from here – every Wednesday. I was able to back track the postage meter code."
The woman scanned the store closely. "This won't bring the cops into it? I don't need any trouble."
"No. No police. I just need to know who is mailing these."
Andrea seemed to be getting very nervous. "I think you'd better leave." She practically threw my ID back at me. "But I might call you later."
"OK." But I noticed she slipped my business card into her shirt pocket. Andrea knew something. Now I had to wait until she would tell me.
Chapter 9 – Witness
I left the store and went into a coffee shop across the lot, ordering a latte. I was sipping it when the office store manager barged into the place. Andrea looked upset as she pulled a bottle of water from a display case, paid for it, then sat down next to me.
"Hello Andrea. Fancy meeting you here."
"Well, we need to talk."
One of the things I explained in my book about being a private investigator is to size up the interviewee. Some are holding back information and you practically need a crowbar and an act of Congress to pry it out of them. The opposite types are all too ready to spill their dirty secret. Most people fit somewhere between the two extremes. Andrea was clearly the talkative type. All I had to do was wait for her to cough it up.
Andrea cleared her throat, took a long pull from the water bottle then started. "A long time ago I was the kind of girl who got into a lot of trouble." She stressed the word in a certain way. "You know."
I think I understood. "Andrea, I don't care about any of that. I only need to find out who is mailing these letters."
"Ok. But it's important to my story." So she told the usual kind of story. A rough home life, looking for love in all the wrong places - that sort of thing. She'd left home and spent time on the street doing what some ended up doing. When she got pregnant she quit that line of business. "When I had my daughter, it made me realize that I had a chance to do some good. Not for me…but for my kid. I got straightened out, had a whole string of food service jobs, and finally got into retail sales. You know what? I'm good at talking to people." She laughed. "Considering my former line of work, it figures." Now she was smiling. "Anyway, I finally have a real job, my daughter is a good kid, I've got a 401K and I don't need any sleaze ball messing it up. And if my manager found out…"
She was ready; more than ready. All I had to do was ask. "Who is the guy, Andrea? What's he look like?"
"This little guy came into the store a few weeks back. He asked if I could mail some stuff for him. He made it sound real hush-hush. And he was chatting me up pretty good. I think he likes redheads. So for a few extra bucks on the side the deal was that he comes in and drops off his stuff. He'll only let me touch the stuff. Always a Wednesday; always at 10:30. Like clock work. It's already sealed and I mail it. He always uses the same plastic envelope, with a tear strip. The address is always the same and printed on a label. I noticed no return address but he said they will know who it's from. He made it sound so mysterious."
"Who is he?"
"Well he claims he works for the government. But one look at his car and you know he's in really deep cover or he's a liar. The thing's a rolling wreck."
"Got a name?"
"About thirty five I guess. Light hair, dark glasses – wears those photo sensitive sunglasses." She looked at the wall long and hard. "Listen, I got my kid to worry about. She's really great and you wouldn't believe how expensive gymnastic lessons are, and…"
I slipped her two twenties under the counter. Prices had gone up. "Maybe I could help?"
The bills disappeared. "His car is an old Ford. I could get the license for you next time he comes in."
I left Andrea holding my business card and some extra money for the balance beam. Knowledge comes from strange places sometimes.
Chapter 10 – Memories
Higgins was clipping orchids when I got back to the compound and Nick was exercising the Dobermans. The dog's names were Hera and Hebe. Considering that their Greek god namesakes were mother and daughter, it made sense. These dogs were starting to get used to me, like the long gone Zeus and Apollo, but they could still give me the willies once in a while. Nick was going through his 'silent command' routine. The dogs were sitting in front of him and with not a sound, only by slight hand or facial movements, Nick sent them here and there. It was amazing to see, although perhaps deadly in import.
Nick let me stand there for two minutes or so, while a breeze shook the palm trees and the snick-snick of Higgins' shears sounded in the background. Finally Nick spoke. "Tom, what can I do for you?" The dogs froze at the sound of his voice.
I did not like the black dogs staring at me. "You think you can send them somewhere? They uh…"
A twitch of his cane sent the dogs running off. Uncanny. "Better?"
"Yeah. I've got some leads on your mail."
"Who is it?"
"Don't know yet, but I'm getting close. I need to know more about Old Dog. The blackmailer claims you saw something that night. Have any ideas? It might be important."
"Yeah, I have." Nick dug in the ground with his cane. "Let's go to the beach."
We sat on the seawall in a narrow strip of shade while Nick went back into his memory files. He looked a man with a lot on his mind. He threw his left leg over his right and started to massage his foot after kicking off his moccasin. The foot was not very pretty.
I realized that this was the very spot where I polished off half a case of beer when I heard that Mac Reynolds was dead. Somehow it was fitting.
"I told you about the night Old Dog passed, right? I've been thinking more about that scene. The night vision goggles let me see pretty well. I was looking over this low wall that was about 15 meters, or 50 feet, from the inner wall, the one Joe Starck was standing by. The more I think about it, they more I think I see, or saw… whatever." He cleared his throat then went on.
"The wall of the compound was adobe - that sun dried brick they use - and what with the sun, the winds, and the freezes, it gets cracked. After a while the cracks get bigger and bigger and then pieces fall off. This wall, right by the doorway, had a hole in it about a foot wide and a few inches high. When we started using that compound, the local kids started hanging around, so to make friends, we'd put candy in that hole. I guess it worked because the kids tipped us off on quite a few nasty surprises." He stopped and rubbed his left foot some more.
I stared out at the sea, as different from the dusty tableland Nick was describing, as you could get. I wondered how Vietnam would have looked as a desert. It might have made a difference, or perhaps not.
"You know, Tom? The more I think about it, and it really hit me the other night around 4 AM with the that I couldn't see the hole in the wall."
"I mean that in the hole, or least where it used to be, was the booby trap that got Starck. He must have leaned against the trigger with his shoulder."
It was starting to dawn on me that Nick had his own little voice. I guessed correctly what was coming next.
Nick quit holding his foot and turned to me and his eyes bored into mine. "Magnum! Don't you get it? I now remember what I saw. I've probably known it all along. I should have seen that the hole in the wall was missing. I should have warned Joe!" His voice choked into a whisper. "Damn it! But if I saw that then someone else did too! And that someone - he must be the blackmailer!"
"Nick." I patted his shoulder as two veterans looked at one another. Nick was not the only one with tears on his face. How many such memories had I recalled over the years? And how many had I conveniently forgotten to quiet my own soul? "Nick… it's OK. Can you give me some names?"
Nick shook off my arm, got to his feet and said "Let's make a list."
Chapter 11 – In Camera
We went to the main house to Nick's room on the second floor, looking south over the side of the house. The room was furnished in what might be called genteel-Hawaiian. The walls were stucco with a beige wash, the bedspread was a riot of oriental designs, and there was a least one Gauguin hanging on the walls. Nick opened up a laptop on an antique desk and started to type names. He typed away for a few moments then wound down. He threw up his hands in disgust.
"Yeah. There's a better way to do this." He walked to the closet, opened the door, and rummaged around, pulling out a dusty duffel. He pawed inside, saying, "I'm not sure I want to do this…ah, here it is." He took out a cheap digital camera. He tossed it to me.
It looked like any other camera, but it was covered in a fine brown dust. "Is this?"
"Yeah. It's got stuff in it from my last deploy." He gulped. "I'm not sure I want to look at it."
"You haven't looked at them?"
"I haven't wanted to look at those pictures. But the answer might be there."
I popped open the little door on the bottom and pulled out the camera card. The fine dust was inside too. I blew the dust off the card then inserted it into the proper slot on the PC. In a few seconds Nick and I were looked at the past of eighteen months ago, in a far-away land.
Nick sat at the desk and scrolled through pictures of smiling and frowning GIs, helicopters, Humvees, and dusty towns. He slowed his flipping of pictures and found the one he wanted. "Here is our squad." His squad didn't look that different from my own long, long ago, but their faces were young – white, black, Asian, and Hispanic. Ten guys with names like Starck, Black, Fernandez, Williams, Flynn, Gunther, Jackson, Kirasumi – usual American names of the 21st century.
In a shoebox on the closet shelf of my condo in Virginia Beach, Virginia I had a stash of similar photos - most in black and white - of my time in a little place called South Vietnam. He reeled off names and ranks, while I jotted notes on a legal pad. He pointed out Joe Starck who was just as he described – dark hair, grinning face. A young face. I stared at the man that would not get any older; the cost of violence.
Nick's finger lingered on the screen as he pointed out the troopers. Oh, yeah… this guy. I'd forgotten. His name is Phil Lewis." The man was perhaps mid-thirties wearing a camo jacket and a floppy hat. A large camera was slung around his neck. "He was a reporter from Reuters imbedded with us. He was right behind to me when the IED went off that messed up my foot. He didn't get a scratch – lucky duck."
I looked at the squad, their young faces smeared with brown dust. "You lose anyone else, Nick?"
A heavy sigh. "No, just Joe and me. Oh, the usual cuts and scrapes. Davey Mauro here sprained his ankle once but it was pretty light." He pressed a button and a printer on a table started to make noise.
"Were all these guys with you the night Joe Starck died?"
"Yeah." He looked at the screen again. "In fact, Phil and Davey were with me watching Joe sneak up to the compound door."
My little voice was shouting at me and I didn't like it.
Chapter 12 – Old Friends
I called Rick Wright and left him a message, asking for an update on his background of search of Nick. I wandered out of the house wool-gathering, when I went to where Higgins was checking on his orchids. These were the common variety of Hawaii, resistant to winds and rain, their sturdy roots in the dark soil.
Watching as he inspected each plant, I noticed a panel of small niches near the compound wall. Some were empty, but eight were plugged with metal panels. Intrigued, I looked closer and saw names and dates. The first one read Castor and the next Pollux. Zeus and Apollo were on markers number three and four. The words were deeply engraved in the bronze. There was a string of them, eight in all. Kneeling in front of my two canine friends, I felt the sun on my back and the way in which it warmed my body along with the grass below my hands. I touched the names. The bronze plates were warm and brightly polished.
"Ah, Magnum. I see you found them," said Higgins, his voice husky.
"Higgins," I stood and turned towards him, "I had no idea."
He pointed to the first stones. "Castor and Pollux, they were the first two. You can see there have been a few."
"These weren't here before."
"Quite right. Robin had their ashes moved here from the Ali'i Memorial Pet Gardens after you moved away." He wiped his eyes. "He thought it proper that the lads and lassies rest here where they had lived so long."
I glanced at the little majordomo. "Tears, Higgins?" I asked, but was not that surprised.
His back straightened. "Of course not!" He wiped again with the back of a gloved hand. "Just a bit of dirt." He turned to go but his head drooped, then he stopped and gazed at me. "Yes, Magnum – tears. If I shed no tears, it would mean that I did not care about them any more."
"Sorry, Higgins, I didn't mean…"
He took my arm and there was still steel in his grip. "I have buried so many…old friends. Almost all of those I have known and loved are now gone. These are but a few of the ones I have kept close over the years."
I put my arm around his shoulders. "I'm sorry my friend." He was shaking, his once strong back felt bony.
"Thomas," now his voice was soft. "Remembrance means more than just remembering."
The breeze blew the trees and the orchids; the sun warmed me and the major and the bronze markers. "Yes, Higgins you're right."
Chapter 13 – Background Check
I was making a grocery list when the beach house phone rang. I was surprised to hear Rita Barzkoff's voice. "Hi Rita! To what do I owe the honor?"
She giggled. "I wondered how your investigation - she stressed the word which made me glad - was progressing."
Without her lead I'd have been sunk. "Very nicely, thank you. The lead was a good one."
"It must have been a little bird who told you that one."
"Yes, but not so little. Rita, is there anything else? I'm sort of busy."
I only heard a long silence and then a frosty voice. "I still want that book."
I didn't mean to hurt her. "I'm sorry, Rita. Can we meet for dinner?"
Now her words softened. "I know a nice place; I'll give you the address. See you at six thirty."
I spent the afternoon buying groceries and putting them away. Rick had not called back. When no call came, I called TC. Mr. Calvin, said his assistant, was in conference and could not be disturbed. Seems that even calling on his personal and private line I could not get through. Oh, well, it was just a social call.
I finally sat down at a laptop that Nick had found for me and did an Internet search of Nick's 'buddies' of that fateful night. David Mauro had a few webpage mentions. I read about his return to Colorado, how he was coaching a little-league football team in Littleton. Not much. But he was stateside, apparently.
Phillip Lewis, on the other hand, had a byline in a Frisco paper until 2007, then went freelance, later hooking up with Reuters News in 2008. Based on some investigative reports on Iraq, they had sent him to Afghanistan, finally inserting himself into a vetted position with Central Command. Centcom finally granted him embedment with several groups in the Afghan theater. His personal website read he currently spent his time between California and Hawai'i.
It always feels good when I have the facts to back up my little voice. Sort of closes the loop. I down loaded his field reports for reading later, being mindful of the time. I wisely checked the address that Rita had given me. It was no restaurant. So I bought flowers to go with the book and forty-five minutes later I had successfully battled rush-hour traffic and was ringing a doorbell.
Chapter 14 – Dinner
The house was similar to other houses on Kiahi Place, all were single story stucco with tile roofs. I saw both solar cells and solar water heaters on a few which made perfect sense at 20 degrees north latitude. This house had a two car garage, beautiful flowers in the yard and bougainvillea over the door.
Rita answered the door in a rush, a flyaway clump of hair falling over her face. "Oh, Thomas, sorry. I was in the kitchen." Just then a loud bell started ringing. "Oops, that's the oven timer!" She ran off.
Fooling a little foolish I stepped inside and closed the door. The house was nicely furnished in quasi-modern with touches of the Islands on tables and walls. I could hear clattering from the kitchen. I followed the smell of roast duck. Rita was pulling a roasting pan from the oven.
Bending over the pan, she basted the bird. "Sorry! Almost done." She turned as I was holding out the flowers. "Oh, thank you!" She took them and bustled around grabbing a pitcher, stripping off the cellophane wrap and used a knife to slice the bottoms of the stems under running water. I could see she knew something about flowers. She pointed to a barstool at the kitchen island. "Please, sit. Would you like some wine?"
I parked myself and said, "Anything you have is fine."
Rita poked around in the fridge and pulled out a bottle. "White, I think." In a few moments she had opened a nice fruity Pinot and I could appreciate the vintage and her. She was wearing dark slacks, sandals, a yellow flowered top, her hair a bit flyaway from her kitchen labors but she wore it down. It fell past shoulder length and framed the planes of her cheeks.
"Rita, this is a lot more than I expected. We could have gone out."
"No that's OK, Tom. I've been taking a cooking class and this gives me a chance to practice. Roast duck, if you don't know, with orange sauce and edamame, and a nice salad."
"Well, it has been a while since I've had nice home cooked meal. I'm just as likely to pick up a grilled sandwich somewhere as cook. I'm starving though, been a while since I ate." Which was breakfast.
She looked me up and down, I hope impressed by my silk shirt and beige pants. I'd shaved too. "No, Tom, you look fine! Now where is your book you promised me?"
I'd been sort of hiding it under my arm on the counter. "Here it is." I handed it to her.
Rita came around the island and taking the book opened it. She read the inscription aloud. "To the greatest Postal Inspector I know. Best wishes, Thomas Magnum, February 2010." She laughed. "Well, I'll try to live up to your expectations."
That sounded worrying. "I hope you like the book. In chapter three are a number of tips on informants. But I didn't think to include post office employees."
Rita laughed again and I liked the sound. She put her arm around my back and hugged me. "Tom, now I can say that I know a published author." She straightened, but her perfume lingered. It smelled nice. "The duck has about another twenty minutes; let's go out on the deck."
I followed her out, as she carried her wine glass and the Pinot to a fabulous view looking down Manoa Valley to Waikiki. I guessed that Manoa Falls wasn't that far and Rita confirmed it.
"Oh, yes the Falls are less than an hour's walk. I hike up there a couple times a week." She settled into a wicker chair and we took in the view. The sun was about gone and the air was cooling. A nice night.
There was a question I had to ask. I sipped wine and jumped off the cliff. "I've been meaning to ask you – what is the connection between you and Rick Wright?"
Rita stared into her glass as she spoke. "I might as well tell you. I was a volunteer at a cancer benefit years ago and Rick's catering business was one of the sponsors. That's how I met him. But he seemed to think that I was as interested in him as he was in me."
"Oh?" This did not sound pretty.
"Well, at least that's what I thought at first. Then we quarreled over a silly thing like where tables were being put up. It was all very silly. I think we got past it." She grinned at me. "I just like needle him about it."
That made me feel better. I gestured towards her house. "This is a nice house, Rita. I like it."
"Thanks. My husband liked it too – when he lived here."
I must have looked uncomfortable.
"Oh, Tom, relax. I've been divorced for years and we had no kids. He even got the dog." She stood up. "I'd better check on dinner."
I finished my wine and followed her into the house. Her cooking and the company were great. The cooking classes were working. I found out that her last name came from a Russian grandfather, and her first name, Margarita, from a Spanish grandmother. I filled her in on the Virginia branch of the Magnums and we traded a few work stories. I complimented her on the meal and she blushed.
After desert, which was a very nice pineapple concoction, we watched some old mystery on the movie channel. The plot was the usual – a deed from the past has poisoned the present. The plot line could have been lifted from my case files over the years, both as private investigator and Naval agent. It was also all too much like Nick's problem.
Late in the film, Rita snuggled up to me on the couch, which was very nice, if a bit forward. I wasn't sure what she saw in me. But I hoped her intentions were honorable you know what I was thinking. The dinner and the wine worked its magic and I must have dozed off. I was having a dream.
Mortar rounds were landing around the restaurant, and Michelle and I were cowering under a table. It was our wedding day and I was holding her hand. Another round came in and she was gone – the shock of the blast took her away and I could see her receding, her eyes pleading with me. Then someone was shaking me and called my name.
"Tom! Thomas! Wake up! Are you having a nightmare?" Rita was shaking me, and in a blur Michelle's face changed into Rita's.
I looked around blearily and pushed myself upright. "Sorry." I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. "Must have fallen asleep."
"Are you sure you're alright?" She held my arm in one hand, her slender fingers clamped around my other hand.
I lied. "Sure, I'm fine. Oops, look at the time, I'd better go."
Her arms slid away as I stood. "Sure you want to?" Her pretty face looked welcoming but also concerned.
I bent and kissed her on the head. "Thanks for dinner and the movie. But I'd better leave." I moved away quickly, present and past mixed up in my head.
She followed me to the door. "Tom?"
"Yes, Rita?" I held the door frame in my hand, trying to crush it.
She asked softly, "Who is Michelle? You were calling her name."
I tried to keep a straight face as I slowly answered. "Someone I loved and lost twice a long time ago. Goodnight." I got into the Ferrari and drove away strangling the steering wheel.
Chapter 15 – Suspect
Tuesday morning I felt groggy. It wasn't from the wine, or the dinner, or even the dream – but a combination of the three. My past weighed heavy at times. Michelle, Lilly, Ivan, all the rest of my loved and despised ones. Sometimes they got jumbled up. Was it Rita's dark hair, her happy smile, or what exactly? Maybe she had nothing whatever to do with it? I'd had that dream before and it always shook me to my foundation. I was polishing off a glass of orange juice and a bowl of fruit when there came a knock on my door. "Come in!" I yelled.
The door opened and Nick came onto the landing dressed in swim trunks and towel. "Hey, Tom! Time for a swim?" he asked.
It was time to get moving. "Ok, I'll meet you there."
By the time I changed and got to the beach, Nick was plowing through the water. The sky wasn't that inviting, a few wispy grew streamers heading in from a large cloud bank and the sky overhead had a reddish hue. It was a sailors-take-warning kind of morning. But I got into the water and began to swim any. After a few laps I was tired, more physically than mentally now. I waddled out of the water and waited for Nick to finish. I was mulling over last night and Nick's problem when he emerged.
Nick dried his hair then limped over. "Magnum, you look like hell."
"Thanks. I fell like hell too. I had some wine…" Hell. "I met this woman…"
"Did she hurt you Tom?"
"No, she didn't. Not at all." Time to change the subject. "I've got a lead on the mailer."
"Who do you think it is?" Nick pounded the sand with his fist. "And why? Why are they torturing me? Don't they know…that every night…" He screeched to a shaky halt. "Shit." He took a few deep breaths. The breeze blew harder and the palm fronds rustled. "I know who it is. It's Phil Lewis, isn't it?"
"What makes you think that?"
Nick looked long and hard at me for a few long seconds. "Because he said things."
Nick was fired up now. "We didn't like the guy. He was always so self-righteous. Smart in a nose-in-the air way. We'd get into a fire fight and he'd walk around taking snapshots of the bodies. He had one of those little digital cameras like mine. I never saw those photos and I don't think anyone did. He had this great big honkin SLR that he took the real shots for his articles. But with the other camera, it was like he was making a record for himself – taking trophies, you know? He was weird."
"Not your typical reporter."
"No, not at all. It was like he was some sort of unofficial witness. It gave us the creeps. And another thing; when I got this," he patted his lower leg – the scars and burns visible like whip marks "He said something that really got to me."
"He bent over me when the medevac chopper was coming in and whispered 'Soldier, it doesn't seem like enough of a souvenir.'" He gulped air. "That bastard."
It might be making sense. "Anything else about him?"
"Yeah. He ate with his mouth open."
I'd heard of worse things. "I'm trying to track him down."
Nick struggled to his feet. "Magnum, you just make damn sure that I know when you find him. Because I want to be there!" He threw his cane through the open gate in the fence and limped after it.
Chapter 16 – Rain Storm
Back at the beach house I got a call through to Rick. "Rick, this is Tom. Got any info for me?" As I waited for an answer I could hear the patter of rain.
"Thomas Magnum, old buddy," he said happily, "considering the lousy life you have led at times, you are one lucky guy to have a friend like me."
I laughed. "Well, I hope it hasn't all been lousy!"
"Nah. You're pretty good, Thomas. But anyway, I called my sources and they dug into Nick Christopher's background. He is a Boy Scout, an Eagle Scout no less. But his record is clean – no major gripes."
"Just as I thought. There was no way that Higgins would let the kid be around if he wasn't."
I could hear rustling of some papers. "Here it is – Nick Christopher was discharged on a medical, after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. You know about the IED. Two Bronze Stars – Purple Heart – theater badges. The usual good stuff. He was a corporal bucking for sergeant when he got hit. Looks like he moved to the Islands about a year ago from Texas and started physical therapy at the VA. Higgins hired him soon after he arrived. Hey, Thomas - speaking of Higgins - how is our serious friend? The last time I saw him during the missing Robin caper he seemed a bit sour - uh, sourer, than usual I mean."
"Rick, I think Higgins is feeling his years. He told me something the other day that was totally unlike his usual gruff character."
Rick giggled. "Well, he did go to school with God. By the way, when will you be taking Cleo and me out to dinner? You did promise."
"Rick let me get this Nick thing taken care of first. Alright?"
"Sure, buddy – no rush." Rick cleared his throat. "Oh, and you'll be glad to know that my condo development is over the hump at last. I have another investor who will make things a lot better. Now if the rain would hold off I might sell some units."
"Glad to hear it, Rick. You do sound happier. Thanks for your help."
"Glad to help out. And Thomas…tell the old buzzard that Cleo and I said hi." He hung up.
I hung up the phone surprised at Rick's message. He and Higgins had never seen eye-to-eye. If you plotted seriousness on one end of the graph and fun-loving on the other you'd put Higgins on the hard end with Rick holding a Mai-tai on the other. But they could work together, when I needed them to.
I had just put the phone down when it rang again. A soft female voice said, "Tom? It's Rita."
Oh lord. I took a deep breath and looked at the Gauguin. "Hi, Rita. That was a great dinner last night."
"I wanted to call…to see if you were alright." She paused then started again. "You looked pretty shaky to me."
"You're right - I was shaky."
Another silence. I could hear her breathing. "Tom. If you need help, I mean…"
"Rita I'm alright." I meant it. "Just a memory that pops up once in a while."
"Well, if you need me, I mean need my help…" she faded out.
I felt my heart in my throat as my words came out. "Michelle was my wife. We married in South Vietnam during the war. We were separated during the pullout and I thought she was killed there. Years later I found out she was alive. But we have a daughter. Lilly is her name, and she's in grad school in San Diego. You'd like her."
"Oh, Tom I am sorry. " Now she spoke very carefully. "But you said you lost her twice."
"Yes, I did. She wasn't killed in Vietnam. She was killed by a car bomb in 1986 right here in O'ahu."
"Oh my God, that's awful!" She sobbed aloud. "I'm so sorry… Thomas, I uh…need to go."
"Rita! Rita?" I was speaking to a dead line. Even in Paradise it rains and it was really coming down now. Life, death, scars on a foot, tears on a pretty woman's cheek – and the hope that the sun will shine again.
Chapter 17 – Set the Stage
I spent a couple hours answering e-mail from my publisher. The company was talking about a book tour, which I was not that keen on. My editor was pushing pretty hard, after all it was their investment, but I wasn't convinced. I was studying updated details of the proposed tour when the phone rang.
"Magnum, how have you been? It's TC." My old friend from Nam and here. "I've been very busy lately, and I know how that can be, but you seem to be buried out there at the beach." He laughed. "Come on man, we got to get you into some action."
He had no idea. "TC, it's great that you called! I might need some backup tomorrow, actually - I'm doing some work for Nick." I had been thinking that TC could help me out.
"Just a little investigation."
"Wait a minute. You said backup. You did say backup? Oh ma, don't tell me…"
"Now TC, it's not what you think."
"Thomas Magnum, I know you better than your mother. Backup. You need me for backup… Doesn't sound too good to me. Let me guess? You've got Orville involved too."
I laughed. "Yeah I do. Rick dug up some info I needed. But I might need your help. Just in case."
"In case what?"
"Well, just in case I need you."
He snorted into the phone. "And you need the Bell Jet-Ranger too?"
"Since you asked, yes. That would be wonderful."
"Thomas, Magnum, of all the self-serving, dirty, rotten schemes. Shoot - I'll bet you want Nick in the chopper with a camera, too?"
"Actually, I think that's a fine idea. Can I ask you to pick up Nick around 10 AM, or should he come to your corporate helipad?"
I heard an exasperated sigh. "Of all the…" Another sigh. "Ok. But this is the last time for TC's chopper limo service. Alright?" He slammed down the phone.
"Thanks, TC," I answered to a dead line. I smiled though. "I knew I could count on you." I cradled the phone, walked to the closet and unlocked the gun locker. I held the 9mm Glock in my hand, pulled back the slide and felt the smooth action. The pistol was lighter and more accurate than the .45 I used in the Navy and later. I listened to the rain fall on the roof as I cleaned it, just in case.
Chapter 18 – One More Letter
The next morning dawned bright and clear. The weather lady predicted a high in the low 80s, sixty this morning, but bright skies for a few days with winds from the south at a few miles per hour. Perfect.
I dressed carefully that morning – my usual jeans, flowered shirt – a gray one – deck shoes. I walked to the Ferrari and waved to Nick as he finished a meal on the Main House veranda. He gave me a thumbs up. The roof came off the car easily and I perched it under a palm tree. Higgins came out of the porch and waved. Looked like a real send off. The engine revved nicely, I pulled through the gate and turned left towards Hawai'i Kai. A briefly saw a grey Mercedes in traffic behind me and then thought nothing of it.
I got to the shopping mall at nine thirty. The coffee shop was open and I ate a blueberry muffin with orange juice as I read the papers and waited. I was surrounded by office workers hauling briefcases, truck drivers, until finally I and two students with their laptops were left. Free Wi-Fi.
I worked my way through the Star Bulletin, the Honolulu Advertiser, and USA Today before my suspect showed up. Actually I heard him first - the sound of a blown muffler giving plenty of notice. There was a rusted Ford pulling into a spot. The driver got out and I compared him to Nick's photo. My watch read ten twenty-five. He was early. I dumped my refuse, left the papers on the table and stalked out of the shop. I entered the office store as quietly as I could. Phil was heading towards the mail window. He looked haggard, at least from across the store. He didn't look like he'd had sleep or shaved in a while. Clothes hung loose on his frame. I studied a package of virus protection software as he we walked up the aisle, pulled a pack of plastic envelopes from a rack and wandered around. He was carrying a large manila envelope under his arm.
I stalked him from aisle to aisle until I was certain where he was headed. There was a table stacked with labels by the mail window. I carefully parked myself there and pretended to study a chart showing new postal rates when he came towards the window.
"Andrea?" he called out.
"Oh, it's you," said Andrea as she came to the window. She wore a disgusted look.
Now it was Phil's turn to be put off. "What? You don't want to mail my stuff any more?"
"Sorry," she answered.
I caught her eye and mouthed the words. "You don't see me." I'd positioned myself to see the action. Lewis opened the manila envelope and stuffed what looked like a letter and photos into the new envelope. He carefully applied a pre-printed address, sealed it and handed it to Andrea. A few dollars changed hands.
I heard a shuffling step behind me and Nick Christopher launched himself into Phil Lewis, knocking him down. Phil sprawled o his face and rolled over muttering curses. He looked up. "Nick? Nick Christopher?"
Nick stood over Phil and screamed at him "You S-O-B! Why are you torturing me? Don't you know that I regret it? All of it?"
Chapter 19 – Face Off
Phil looked up at his attacker. "Nick?" He tried to recover from the shock. "I didn't know you were on Oahu. I thought you went back to Texas. And why in hell did you knock me down? I'll call the cops! I'll sue your tail!"
I grabbed Nick as he raised his cane to strike. "Whoa, Nick. Whoa!" I shook him a little bit, feeling the muscles of his arms bunching up. I turned to TC for help, who grabbed Nick by the shirt.
"Sorry, Thomas," he growled. "Nick demand I put the chopper down, when he saw you go into the store. Then he jumped out and hustled in here."
"Nick! TC!" I yelled. "All I wanted you to do was tail the guy if he took off!" Best laid plans.
That's when Andrea raced around the counter. "Hey! I don't know what your problem is, but you take it outside. Out of my store! All of you! Before I call the cops!!!"
"Ma'am. Sorry, my two hot-headed friends get funny ideas about practical jokes, you know?" TC was all smooth charm from his aviator sunglasses on top of his bald head to the business suit and polished shoes. He turned to Nick and me. "How many times have I told you to not play these silly games?"
Andrea had steam coming out of her ears as I offered a hand to Phil Lewis and pulled him to his feet. I could feel the bones of his hand, and they matched the planes of his face – there was no meat anywhere on him. A walking scarecrow.
Andrea pushed me aside. "Well, ok. But get out of here. All of you!" Next she turned her ire onto Phil. "You owe me for the new envelopes."
Phil pulled out a worn wallet and threw a ten dollar bill at her. "Here." He took one look at the four of us as we glowered at him. Then Phil gave Nick a mighty shove, knocking me into TC and he ran. I got a crack on the head as I went down – it felt like an elbow.
TC and I got tangled up with a display rack, while Andrea tried to help us up. I was dazed but as I sat up, I saw Nick running after Phil. Cane or no cane he was moving fast. TC was holding his elbow and gave me a look that said Not again!
Chapter 20 – Finish Line
As he and I ran out of the store, Phil's Ford burned rubber out of the lot. The car might be beat up, but it had a hot engine. Then the Ferrari, MY Ferrari raced after him. "Nick! Wait!" TC was standing there watching the Indy 500. "Well, come on, TC, let's go!" I grabbed his arm and hustled him towards the Jet Ranger helicopter, perched on grass past the coffee place.
As we belted in TC looked at me with a big smile. "Just like old times, right?"
"How in the heck did Nick get a key to the Ferrari?" The rotors overhead were spinning faster and faster.
"Magnum, uh, Thomas… I guess he had a key."
"Where in the heck did he get a car key?" I looked at my pilot friend, who looked sheepish. "Oh, no! You didn't!"
"Well, yeah. I guess I might have given him an extra key, just for safe keeping!" The rotors overhead reached a blur. "Now hold on, here we go!" He pulled up on the collective – the lever that controls rotor pitch and engine speed – then tilted the control stick between his legs and we were off.
I put on the radio headset so we could speak over the roar of the turbine engine, the huge transmission, and the airstream rushing over the cabin. "TC! You mean he's had a key to my car – MY CAR – all this time?"
"Seemed like a good idea at the time."
I spluttered some more about they key.
"Shut up, Thomas. Let me fly the bird!" We climbed to two hundred feet or so, banked left and took off after the Ferrari and the Ford. In two minutes of head start, they were way up the highway, but the chopper could easily catch them. The highway ran towards Hanauma Bay, where many tourists went snorkeling at the state park. Route 72, the Kalanianaole Highway, dropped from four lanes to two as it climbed the Koko Head Escarpment. Past the entrance to the state park I could see the grey Ford with a red Italian sports car right on its tail. Nick had wasted no time catching him.
TC took us in closer, but stayed high enough to keep them in sight. Wouldn't do to rile the FAA or Kanohe Marine air traffic control. Koko Head, another dormant volcanic peak screamed by on our left. The ocean was blue and green, and the slopes the land verdant. If we kept going at this speed we'd be back at Robin's Nest pretty soon. Below us the Ferrari dogged the Ford through traffic, which was fairly light this Wednesday. Coming up quickly on the racing cars was another – a grey Mercedes. Which could only mean that Rita Barzkoff was in on the chase. What was she doing in all this? That must have been her car I saw when I left the compound.
Phil missed the turnoff if he was going to double back towards Honolulu. Now there was only open road as we rounded the south east point of Oahu. The Ford pulled ahead, but the Ferrari closed the gap. The road ahead was twisty as it crossed some ravines, I saw the Ford accelerate with the Ferrari diving into the curve, and I just knew what was going to happen next.
"Nick!" I screamed. "No, not the brakes!" But of course Nick could not hear me. The red car spun, the lighter front end swinging around into a viscous spin. The tires scrubbed off speed in a cloud of smoke. It crossed the centerline and dove into the brush on the left shoulder. From our altitude I could see my car leap as it flew up a slight berm and it came to a harsh halt. Tail lights on the Ford flashed red as it slowed and stopped. The Mercedes fish tailed by stopped. Rita must have climbed on the brakes as her car blocked the highway.
"Thomas, hold on!" TC dove the chopper then pulled the nose up as we neared the ground putting the rotor backwash into instant braking. As the skids kissed the ground I flipped open the door and was running to the car. Rita chased me as smoke wafted from the engine. I could see Nick slumped over the wheel, then his head turned and he pushed open the door. Rita sped past me to the door, telling Nick not to move. TC raced up with a fire extinguisher and squirted the engine compartment. Smoke was replaced by a powdery white cloud.
I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911, telling the dispatcher of the crash and the need for an ambulance. I flipped the phone closed as someone grabbed my arm.
Phil was at my elbow tugging on me. "Magnum, I didn't mean…"
I flattened him with a left cross and he crashed to the gravelly ground. "Why'd you do it?" I screamed at him. "Why?" I grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him up my left fist ready to nail him again.
Rita pulled on my arm. "No! Stop! Just stop."
Nick was supported by TC. Blood dribbled from a split lip. "Yeah, Thomas. Stop." He blotted his face. "He ain't worth it." He spat.
I hadn't needed the gun after all.
Chapter 21 – An End
Rita slapped her handcuffs on Phil and we stood guard over him until the police arrived, shortly on the heels of a fire truck and ambulance. Nick was in surprisingly good shape. He had sore ribs from the seat belt and he'd bit his lip. Some aspirin and a little rest and he'd be fine.
I was pretty mad. My car was wrecked, and it sure looked like Rita had tailed me. I tugged her around the corner of the ambulance while the EMTs checked out Nick. "Rita, what it the world were you doing? Following me? Messing with my investigation?"
She looked at me with a concerned look. "Dummy. You aren't that much of a PI, you know that? So I figured I'd nail the guy if he got away. I knew that someone was mailing those things here, always on Wednesdays at 10:30. So I got here about the time that you went marching into the store like General Patton." Now she smiled. "Besides, you did need my handcuffs!" She cuffed me on the cheek and went back to check on Nick.
I sagged against the aluminum side of the ambulance. She was probably right. Maybe this was getting too much for me. I had retired right? Well hadn't I? I had a Navy pension, my book deal, and…what? What did I have?
A haul-away picked up the Ferrari leaking fluids and looking very sad. I stood in the road watching the tableau.
"Thomas, I'll have them take it to my personal shop. We restored it once, we can do it again." TC laughed. He slapped me on the shoulder then looked from me to Rita and back again. "Tell you what? I'll fly Nick back to Robin's in the chopper. Makes sense to make it a round trip." He looked at us again. "You two need to talk," he said quietly.
My car was wrecked and hauled away, the ambulance had left, and the chopper took off. Rita drove me to the Nest. It was a subdued ride.
Rita stopped at the gate set into the lava rock wall of Robins Nest. Silence filled the car. After a long pause she said, "Well, Thomas Magnum, is this it? The end?" She was staring at the gate as it slowly opened.
I reached across the car, took her chin softly and turned her head towards me. "I hope not."
Chapter 22 – In Remembrance
The Ferrari wasn't completely wrecked, thank God. TC guessed mostly suspension work, a new oil pan, and a new fuel manifold since the old one was cracked - that's what started the fire. My insurance company wanted to scrap it, but I resisted. A well placed phone call from Higgins fixed that problem. It seems that one of their Board of Directors was a friend of Robin Masters. So I'd get the car back. It wasn't the first time it had been damaged, and the way things usually worked out for Magnum, Private Investigator, well you know, it would not be the last.
When the mail showed up Friday, the last blackmail letter arrived. In it, Phil had included gory pictures of dead combatants with a demand for ten thousand dollars, or those pictures would find their way to Robin Masters. TC, Rick, Rita and I, along with Higgins were on the veranda. We watched as Nick opened the last blackmail letter from Phil Lewis.
Nick stared long and hard at the contents. He limped to a column which held up the roof and rested his head against the stucco for a moment. He raised his bruised head, a black eye giving him a pirate look. He took a long look out at the ocean and then turned to us. "Magnum, take these – THINGS – and burn them. I never want to see them again, at least on paper. I can see them in my head anyway. I don't need Phil Lewis to remind me."
I took the letter and photos and put them face down on a table. "So it was all about the money."
"Sure looks that way." Nick sighed deeply then looked at all of us. "Rick, TC, Rita, Thomas…thanks for helping me out. And Higgins, thank you for giving me your trust." He winced as the tape around his ribs pulled at sore muscles.
The British voice came out proudly. "Of course, my boy. Always best to let these things work themselves out. They do come right in the end."
Nick didn't look so certain. "Do they?"
I looked at TC and Rick. They knew - knew that it could take years. Best not to tell him that.
Rick said, "Nick, look. If it means anything, and it may not make you feel better, we've been there. TC, Thomas, and I we still get…" He stopped and his faced looked drawn. "We can still feel it every so often."
TC shook Nick's hand and his eyes spoke volumes. "Yeah, we do. Don't we, Thomas?"
Rick joined him. "Yeah, kid. You're not alone." He stood and shook Nick's hand. "It does get better."
I smiled my best smile as I answered. "It does get better." I almost believed it myself. "Now back to the matter of Phil Lewis. Rita?
She smiled at her audience. "Well, between the authority of the Postal Inspection Service and the threat of greater charges, Phil Lewis came clean. Nick not only was he blackmailing you, he was also going after a number of GIs from your unit and others. He's given us a list of his victims. The sad thing is that all the money is gone."
"Gone?" Nick was incredulous. "Gone? I mean, I didn't send him any but my friends?"
Rita shook her head sadly. "Yes – he spent it all but not how you expect. Magnum, do you remember saying that Phil looked run down?"
"Well, Phil spent all the money on medical treatments. Seems that he got sick sometime after he returned from Afghanistan. He's one sick man. Some sort of lymphatic cancer." She looked very sad. "Justice works in strange ways."
That announcement made me sad. Was it really just about the money then? But it was revenge – but that had been turned against Phil Lewis himself. I'd never know.
Rick broke the somber spell. "Well, that's the way it goes." Then he got animated. "Say, why don't we all go out for dinner? Magnum owes Cleo and me dinner and he is a published author now. Seems only fair that he…"
I jumped on him. "Ah, come on Rick! My car is wrecked and if you think books make money for the author, well let me tell you…"
Nick laughed. "Come on guys. Heck, I'll buy dinner. TC and Rick - call your wives - let's all go out. My treat."
Higgins stood. "Gentlemen and lady before we rush off to the restaurants of Waikiki, I suggest that we complete something that I have planned. Please follow me." He headed down off the veranda, waving us to follow.
We followed him down stairs and across the lawn to where a table covered in a linen table cloth stood, a tray with glasses and a magnum of Champaign on it. Jonathan looked at the label. "Ah yes, some of Robin's finest stock. This shall be excellent." He carefully peeled the foil off the cork, undid the wire cage, and with withered thumbs let the cork fly. A brief spurt of foam followed then subsided. He carefully filled each crystal flute and placing the empty bottle on the table handed each of us a filled glass.
Higgins squared his shoulders and faced the sinking sun. The golden light glinted from his silver hair, but there was a twinkle in the eyes of his lined face. "Magnum and Nick both good friends - Rick and TC fine fellows both – and Ms. Rita, you too have played a part in this work. There are certain things brought up in this affair that must be addressed. Nick for your lost team mates, Magnum, TC, and Rick, for all the ugly feelings that this has stirred, and for Rita, dear lady, for helping my friends overcome this darkness. We shall make a toast - a toast we now make for all those that we have lost and we remember, for in this act of remembrance, we honor them forever."
Higgins swept his gaze over us as he said, "Here's to my mum and dad, my brothers, and my brothers-in-arms."
Rick took the cue. "To my sister and my parents."
"To the VMC 02 members." TC choked a bit, but he went on. "And my momma."
Nick went next. "Here's to Joe Starck and all my squad mates living and dead." He pursed his lips. "And here's to Phil Lewis and the pain that he has caused and is bearing."
I raised my glass. "Here's to my team mates, and all the Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen too, who never got a chance to grow up." Rita put her hand on mine. Then I went on. "And to Michelle."
Rita raised her soft voice. "And to those who cannot forget or forgive."
Higgins said, "Well done. Now raise your glasses with me. I think these words may be appropriate. I learnt them long ago and have thought of them over the years when honoring and remembering those who have gone before. I will now recite William Shakespeare's sonnet thirty:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd and sorrows end."
The little major raised his glass to each of us, to the sky above, and then we drank the bubbly. Rita's hand was warm in mine as we watched the sun set.
16,130 words March 22, 2010