The last two hundred yards of my daily run are always the hardest and that early summer evening was no different. It wasn't merely because the grade was all uphill; my mind was just about that far ahead of my body, anticipating the recovery, looking forward to a quick shower and a chilled glass of California chardonnay.
My feet pounded the asphalt past the Marina Restaurant. I stopped and walked the quarter mile to the joggers' fountain to warm down. There used to be a sign that marked it, but one of the patrons left the Marina early one morning and ran over it. Now the sign is gone and there's only a bubbler atop a galvanized pipe protruding from the lawn at a forty-five-degree angle.
I had been rounding back into shape after a six-month battle with injuries and indolence, the kind of injuries you get when you push your nose into other people's business and the kind of indolence when you're not certain you can start all over again. The first law of thermodynamics is even more certain as you approach your middle years. A body at rest does, indeed, tend to remain at rest.
The warmdown lasted until my heartbeat slowed to the legal limit and I could go home. Home is Duchess, a fifty-six-footketch-rigged sailboat I'd purchased in Singapore from a bankrupt Chinese merchant and sailed to Hawaii in the mid-eighties. Duchess is a generous lady, one of the few I have known. And for a while she'd been the only one in my life. I had been heading for California but got blown off course by a hurricane. By the time she was repaired I'd found my own patch of paradise and decided to stay.
Mine is the largest boat in the marina and draws the most water. Consequently she is farthest from the quay. I walked down the dock to my slip, watching the sky. The sunset was flaming, fluorescing the volcanic ash Kilauea was shooting from the south coast of the Big Island all the way into the stratosphere. Across Pearl Harbor's northern shore the water reflected gold and fiery red. Against the far mountains the last gasp of the day's cane harvest fires showed white against the black slopes, and black against the sky.
While watching the sunset I nearly missed seeing the bulky silhouette of a man sitting on Duchess's stern, outlined against the evening sky. Even with his features in shadow I could tell he was big and fit, a carnivore, accustomed to occupying the top of the food chain.
"Good evening," I said in measured tones, angry at the trespass but not giving anything away. The way I earn my living sometimes causes me to make enemies. I live close and I live careful, and I've found it worthwhile to make some fast judgments before acting. The old body's not as quick as it used to be and my mind has learned to compensate for the slowing reflexes. "Anything I can help you with?"
"It's true what I heard about you white boys. You sure do sweat," said the man, his mature, gritty voice still heavy with the origins of his birth. It was a voice I immediately recognized. He stood and looked down at me, a benevolent, flashing smile adding another crease to the dark and fearsome face I knew so well. "Wipe yourself down, boy. I came by to have a drink with an old friend."
"It's been a long time, sailor."
"When did you get in?" I climbed into the cockpit and embraced the man who had been closer than any brother.
"This morning. You're a hard man to find, even on an island this size. Had to look for your boat. There's a master chief at the CPO club who covers for you pretty good. Had to show him my pedigree before he even admitted knowing you."
"The only kind," he allowed. "You're getting back into shape," he said, punching me in the stomach with a playful jab.
"Starting to. Ran eight miles tonight."
"You might make it out of the wheelchair before long."
Max was dressed like a tourist in a tank top and shorts and white Nike lowtops with no socks. His T-shirt had startling green capital lettering that said HAWAII--IF IT SWELLS, RIDE IT!, pulled tight over hard muscle. He resembled a tourist the way a tiger shark resembles a goldfish. For a man in his late forties he was as solid as a rock. Hurricanes couldn't put him down.
Max pointed toward the restaurant above the boat slips. "They serve drinks up there at that shack?"
"Let me shower, then we'll talk."
I unlocked the cabin and went below to change. Max remained in the cockpit, catching the last rays of the warm summer sun on his face. He was still there when I returned, watching a small fleet of canoes racing to the buoy near the north shore of Ford Island. He wore a bemused expression of contentment.
Remembering how he had loved the local beer when we were stationed in Germany, I handed him a cold bottle of Edelweiss Dunkel. "Talk here. It's as good as any place and there's no cover charge."
Max accepted the beer, his smile widening. His eyes shifted from the sweating paddlers to me and back.
"This is peaceful, John," he said, his voice a reverent whisper,the way you'd speak in a cathedral. "You have truly found paradise."
"Had to get as far away from everywhere as I could."
"Did you find peace?"
"Close as it gets, I guess."
I piled some cushions against the opposite bulkhead and slid down against them. I was drinking my wine. I'd been thinking about the bittersweet flavor on my tongue during my run, been planning on drinking alone. But this was better.
"I have lately been to Europe," he said. "An all-expense-paid tour of the Balkans. You know the place. Where the First Big Mistake started when somebody shot some duke."
"Was it as bad as they say?"
"Worse, John. Worse than Lebanon. Worse than Somalia. We had no mission. The assholes put us out there for show one more time. A lot of good men died when the shooting started and they wouldn't back us up."
I hadn't been to Somalia, having left that life long before. But I'd been out there before, without backup from those whom Max had called "assholes." We'd been out there together more times than I could count. "Nothing more dangerous than your own politicians," I observed.
Max drank from the bottle, nodding and rolling his eyes in assent. "Goddamned whores are changing everything these days," he said. "But they never change. Probably been that way since the legions were marching along, rolling over all the known world in the name of Rome. But if they get in trouble ..." His voice trailed off. "Soldiers don't change much. Neither do the politicians. Whores sell out the soldiers every time."
I let him drink and talk, unwinding from his travels. I knew he hadn't flown halfway across the Pacific just to look up an old shipmate and tell war stories. Max wasn't like that. He always had a mission.
"You still doing favors for friends?" he asked.
"When I need the money." Max never did accept the factthat I'd pulled a private detective license in this state. He didn't think a living could be made that way. He called it "doing favors for friends." I didn't argue with him. In a way, that was how it seemed to work.
"How you fixed lately?"
Max took a last gulp from the Edelweiss, draining the bottle. "Depends upon what, the friend? How about me?"
"You remember MacGruder?"
I remembered. He'd been our commanding officer once upon a time when it had been decided by our nation to waste thousands of its best and its brightest in an Asian war. He was the best of the best and the brightest of the brightest. He never let any of his men down. And when our country's politicians led us into yet another ill-considered and poorly conceived battle for a godforsaken piece of real estate in the South Caribbean he was there again, not for the glory or because he agreed with the cause, but because duty called. He'd always backed me up, and he had saved my life more than once. That last time he'd put his career on the line for me and my men. Our SEAL team had been pinned down by Cuban "construction workers" who just happened to have heavy automatic weapons and knew how to use them. He reversed the decision of a higher officer to abandon us and sent in a company of marines to relieve the pressure, allowing us to withdraw intact.
"Admiral now. Vice admiral. He's jumped a couple of pay grades since Grenada. That was the last time you saw him?"
I thought about it. "I guess it was." I left the navy soon after, unable to stomach the disaster the politicians were calling a victory. Too many of my best friends had died for the worst of reasons.
"Did you know he had a daughter? Lived here on Oahu?"
I shook my head.
"Named Mary. From what I knew of her she was a wild and beautiful girl. Chip off the old block but looked just like her mother. Graduated from Radford High. Then she went to some Ivy League college on the East Coast. After college she came back to Hawaii, because she loved it here when he had been assigned to CINPAC. Worked as a cocktail waitress in one of the big hotels in Waikiki. Got into some other stuff that wasn't so good."
"She okay now?"
"Depends upon your theology, I guess. Got herself murdered about three months ago. Raped and murdered. Left like some trash out on the Waianae coast."
"I hadn't heard about it."
"No reason for you to pay attention. You didn't even know she existed. I heard you were in pretty bad shape yourself about then, anyway." Max smirked at me. "Got it in the right leg again?"
"That was the one."
"What is that, three times in the same leg?"
"Twice, but that's enough."
He smiled and nodded. Through all the bad times Max had never been so much as scratched, as though bullets bounced off him. I'd caught most of it. More than once he'd taken my nearly lifeless body out of some hairy places, with hot, fast metal moving through our space, carrying me over his shoulder as if he were out for a jog in the park on a sunny day. Max, my Kevlar friend.
"Healing up pretty good now?"
"It's coming along."
"Could be you're getting kind of old to go whacking at windmills," he said. "Got another one of these?" He held up the dead soldier. I took the empty bottle below, pulled another beer from the cold locker and returned to the cockpit. The sky was a deep purple over the Waianae Mountains with night settlingin. It was beautiful, but now I could only picture a dead thing beyond the distant peaks.
"Could be you're right, Max. I've got no other skills. Guess I could sell insurance."
"Guess you could, John, but it'd kill you. We're twins, you and me. I just stayed in, even though I'm old and tired. You got out because you couldn't stand the bullshit."
"The police do not claim to have a suspect."
"What do you think I can do about it?"
"The admiral is a broken man. His wife died of cancer six months before his daughter was killed. You remember how he loved that woman? That hit him hard. I was there and it was a messy death. I thought that was going to do him in, but he's a tough old bird and he came through it pretty much intact. Then his only child was murdered. Now there's some nasty talk. About the daughter."
"The worst. The admiral wishes to pursue a political career when he retires. Something nasty surfaces about his kin, well, you know how campaigns are these days. Something like this would kill it."
"Politics? I thought you hated politicians."
"Every one of 'em since Ike."
"What do you want me to do, Max?"
"Someone's got to find the killer before the cops do. You're here. It's your island. It's what you do. No one else can be trusted." Max leaned forward, his voice softening. "You do favors for friends. I'm a friend. The admiral's a friend. We've all got history; we've seen it happen a time or two. The cops have their own agenda. Admiral MacGruder will need a friend looking out for his interests."
When I didn't react, he shook his head sadly and leaned back against the cushions.
"You might even come up with something the cops can't. You know people in the strangest places."
I nodded confirmation.
"And if you run across anything unfavorable about the girl, anything at all, lose it. Make sure it stays lost. Something nasty surfaces about the admiral's daughter, it'd finish him. Him and his military and political career."
"Why not have the Naval Investigative Service look into it. They're professionals. They can get all the information about the girl from the police."
"Aside from the jurisdiction problem, think about what you just said," said Max, settling against the cushions.
"The navy is a small institution, and anything they find out about the girl would soon be common knowledge."
He nodded. "Nobody keeps a secret anymore, John. Only friends do. Those boys and girls would hand the results of their investigation upstairs and one of the admiral's enemies would get hold of it and it would be certain to leak. There's only one way to keep secrets. Limit the knowledge. To friends."
Max was handing me two missions. First, find the killer, and then make sure anything about the girl that could damage her father would never see the light of day. There could be only one way to ensure that.
"I'm not an assassin."
"Not without good cause, anyway."
I winced, remembering a time in Central America when I was ordered to do so, and Max had worked support.
"I wouldn't know where to start ..."
"You owe him, John."
"We both do," I said.
"That's why I took a couple of days leave. It took me all day to find you. I have to be back in Coronado tomorrow night. I can't do anything about this. Not while I'm in uniform. But you can."
"All right, what can it hurt?" Max was right. I had a debt to pay.
DIAMOND HEAD. Copyright © 1996 by Ildi Co. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.