High Stakes in Honolulu

Episode Five in the Copper and Goldie Mysteries

Sam Nahoe and his canine partner, Goldie, crept down Kalakaua Avenue through the heart of Waikiki in their yellow Checker cab seeking one more fare for this Saturday night. Sam, the thirty-seven-year-old independent driver, had started Copper and Goldie’s Taxi Service when the Honolulu Police Department handed him a disability retirement package. A killer’s bullet—hopelessly lodged in Sam’s spine—compelled the former homicide detective to look his plight squarely in the face.

The picture wasn’t pretty. His wife divorced him, leaving him with only visiting rights to his little girl. He had to find a new way to earn a living—and even worse, a new way to get around on his own two feet. Rejecting a klutzy walker, he chose two aids, dubbing them Cane and Able, to ski-walk wherever he had to go.

Posted next to his hacker’s license was a brand new private investigator’s license. Sam became a P.I. because he and his dog somehow always landed in a hotbed of trouble—forced to cope with the island’s criminal element. For Sam this worked just fine. Once a cop always a cop.

Goldie, a rescue golden retriever, rode up front, safely harnessed in the shotgun seat. Sam had trained her to spot the waving arms of fares. “Rrruff!” she barked as they crawled through Waikiki.

Sam saw a woman in a spaghetti-strap mini-dress waving them down in front of an ABC store. The taxi screeched to a halt. Two roll-around suitcases were parked next to her eye-catching figure. Her bare arms revealed well-defined biceps. Long tanned legs had the calf and thigh muscles of a woman who haunted the gym. Sam popped the trunk. Before he could get out to help her, she had easily piled both pieces of luggage into the trunk and shut the lid.

“Where to, ma’am?” Sam asked, as she settled herself into the back seat. Airport, I bet, he thought. He turned halfway around to his passenger. Flowing locks of shimmering red hair fell around the woman’s unsmiling face. Deep lines of anger radiated from her generous mouth, spoiling the exotic image.

Still awaiting her response, he said, “Ma’am? Where we going?”

“I don’t know!” she burst out. Suddenly embarrassed, her expression slowly softened and, amid a flood of tears, she said, “I haven’t figured it out yet.” Sam shrugged, started the meter, and joined the line of one-way traffic. At the far end of Waikiki he turned into the empty parking lot of the zoo, stopped the cab, and shut down the meter.

“Maybe she’ll open up and tell me what’s wrong if I talk to her,” Sam said aloud to Goldie.

“Sorry,” the woman managed, overhearing him. “Give me a minute. I’m having a terrible time.”

“Where you from?” Sam tried. No answer. “What’s your name?”

“Are you really a private detective?” she asked, eyeing his P.I. license.

“Absolutely, ma’am, and I used to be one of Honolulu’s Finest. I know it’s unusual, but my cab is my office.” This time he turned squarely around to face her. “How can I help you?”

“I’m not sure that you can, but I wasn’t trying to be rude. My name is Maxine Fish, and we’re here vacationing from Cleveland Park, Ohio.”

“We? You and?” asked Sam.

“My husband, Duane Fish.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“My husband.” She dabbed at her pale cheeks with a monogrammed handkerchief.

“You’re really gonna have to explain that one to me,” he replied.

“I will,” she promised. “We got here with Lilly and Phil Tremane, friends from home, last Sunday for a two-week stay at the Surflyer Hotel. Duane and I agreed to this trip so we could heal our marriage. We’ve been going over some rough spots lately. You see, winning or losing, my husband likes to play cards, high-stakes cards. Our life has been a roller-coaster, riding the ups and downs of personal finance. The first few days here were wonderful, but on Wednesday afternoon Duane met this man at a bar and learned about a floating poker game that night. I begged him not to go, but he went anyway.”

“Did he come home at all that night?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, around 3:30 in the morning. Something must’ve happened at the game. My guess is he lost a bundle. He didn’t get up till noon, and then he snapped at me and our friends all the rest of the day. The Tremanes aren’t speaking to us now; they even moved to another hotel. Then, would you believe, Duane told me he was going back to the game Thursday night, and that’s when we got into our biggest fight ever. He said he didn’t give a damn what I wanted, he was going anyway.”

“So you walked out on him,” Sam preempted.

“Oh, no. Duane walked out on me. It’s been two days. He hasn’t even called. I don’t know where he is or how to find him. I don’t even know if he ever intends to come back. But you know what? I’m not sure I want him back.”

“So you’re ready to go back to Ohio?” asked Sam.

“I thought so when I walked out of the hotel, but if I do, I may never know what happened to the bastard. I suppose I do care enough to find out if he’s okay.”

“What did you do with his things?” Sam inquired.

“I left them in the closet in our room. Let the hotel figure out what to do with them when they learn that we’re both gone.”

“So . . . do you want me to find your missing husband or take you to the airport?”

“How much do you charge, Mr. . . ?” She strained to see his name on the license.

“Call me Sam. It’s thirty-five to the airport and five-hundred a day up front, plus expenses to find errant and inconsiderate husbands.”

Maxine rummaged through her Prada hobo bag and rescued a paisley wallet. She slid ten ATM-crisp, one-hundred-dollar bills from it and handed them to Sam. “If you can’t find him in two days, you can take me to the airport.”

“Do you have a decent photo of Duane?” he asked.

She opened the wallet once more and extracted an arm-in-arm shot of the two of them. “This is from our last anniversary. That do it?”

“Yup! How tall is he and how much does he weigh?” asked Sam, thinking the man looked a bit like a famous old British actor with his clipped mustache and tailored suit.

“He’s five-nine, weighs about one-sixty.”

“Did he mention where this game was?”

“All I heard was ‘down the street.’ ”

“So where to now?” asked Sam. “Where do I drop you for the night, Mrs. Fish? Back to the hotel?”

“Call me Maxine. I’ll be getting rid of the Mrs. Fish bit real soon. Where? Someplace cheaper. Now that I’m on my own, I should be watching my cash flow.”

“I can get you to a smaller hotel, or a Bed and Breakfast. Or better yet, I can take you to my Auntie Momi’s place. She has two extra bedrooms that she rents by the week. Her last renter left on Monday, and she only charges a hundred-twenty bucks a night, meals included if you eat whatever she does.”

“Sounds like a deal made in heaven if she’ll have me.”

“She’ll have you, all right. But first, you’ll have to excuse Goldie and me while we take a little walk.” Sam undid the harness, clipped on the short leash, and they got out of the cab. “We won’t be more than a hundred yards away.”

Maxine watched him. She liked the broad chest in the polo shirt, the thick black hair with a few touches of gray at the temples, the high cheekbones and dark eyes. Her thoughts strayed. He’s a private investigator. Is he also a privates investigator?  

Returning in ten minutes, Sam clipped Goldie into her harness, started up the engine, and drove out of the zoo parking lot onto Kapahulu Avenue headed north. Thirty minutes later Auntie Momi had adopted Maxine as one of her own. His auntie was like that.

* * * *

The Bottleneck Bar and Grill smelled of beer and bad breath. Sam was searching for one of his favorite underworld snitches, always in a back booth. And there she was: Sleight-of-Hand Sophie Kalimalu, shuffling a deck of cards and cutting for high card and the money. The suckers never lasted long. She’d let them win a few before seriously cutting into their paychecks. Sam had to wait a piece, sipping a ginger ale at the bar, while she took a twenty-something to the cleaners. In the old days as a cop he’d permitted her to operate in return for high-quality street information. The dejected twenty-something finally took his beer and departed, leaving his pride and money behind.

“Hi, Sophie,” Sam said. “Howzit?” He slid into the booth and hooked Cane and Able over the top of the seat.

“Howzit yerself, Copper?” the robust, double-chinned woman answered. “Wait, I heard you drivin’ a hack now, and anoddah t’ing. What’s wit’ dem giant-sized chopsticks?”

“I’ve got some excess lead in my spine, giving me a giant-sized pain,” Sam replied. “They help me get around.”

“Ain’t dat like havin’ lead in your okole?” Her rippling body flesh shook with silent laughter.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What’s it like, Sophie?”

“Wuddya want?” she asked, suddenly turning serious. “I ain’t givin’ you no more free stree’ smar’s. You ain’t a lousy copper no more.”

“I’m a private eye now, Sophie. And I’ve still got a lot of pull with the guys on the job. One call, and they could shut you down plenty quick. I’ve got to find a missing husband who’s into the floating poker game—the high stakes game close by here. Where’s it at?”

“Why should I tell you?” Her once-pretty face wrinkled up.

“You never know when you’ll need a favor, girl. You’re not a stranger to trouble, Sophie. And I’ve got this feeling you know where all the action is. So give it up.”

“Okay, okay!” She motioned over her shoulder with her thumb. “It’s da little B&B on da makai corner—second floor rear—four knocks’ll get you in, but you din’t hear it from Sophie, yah?”

“Sure, Sophie.” He laid a twenty-dollar bill on the table, knowing full well what the outcome would be, and said, “Cut.”

She shuffled the deck and pushed it toward him. He cut and turned over the nine of diamonds. She cut the same deck and turned over the queen of spades. He winked at her.

“See ya, Soph,” he said, sliding out of the booth. “Be kind to the suckers, will you?” He grabbed Cane and Able and left the bar.

Sam ski-walked to the cab and parked at the end of a hotel’s U-shaped drive. As usual, he had left with Goldie in the driver’s seat, his khaki “newsboy” cap on her head, and her paws on the wheel. It was cheaper than a parking garage and only cost him a Milk Bone for her to give up the seat to him. He clipped the walking leash on her, tossed the cap on the seat, and the two of them strolled to the Bed & Breakfast on the corner. He opened the front door, and they climbed to the second floor rear.

“Stay,” he said softly. Goldie laid herself down on the hall carpet, nose between her paws.

Standing on the far side of the door to hide her presence, he knocked sharply four times. The door opened to the chain length and half-a-face with one eye peered back at him. “Player,” Sam said. The chain slid off and the door opened fully. Sam stepped inside.

Games were going on in each of two rooms. Sam took a minute to scan the faces of the men at the tables. None matched the photo Maxine had given him.

“Minimum bet in this room is fifty dollars, two-hundred in the back room. There are no vacancies at any of the tables right now,” said a bruiser in a faded print aloha shirt. A hotel-style gold name tag said he was called Gardner. “But you are free to wait over there.” With gnarled knuckles he pointed to a sofa along one wall of the first room, then moved to re-chain the door.

“Wait,” said Sam. He pulled Duane and Maxine’s picture out of his shirt pocket and showed it to the bouncer. You seen this guy? He likes to play high-stakes hold-em.”

“What the hell do I look like—some kind of nursemaid, brah? Naw. Ain’t seen him, anyway. Are you a player or not?” The man’s weasel eyes told Sam a different story—he’d recognized the man in the photo.

“I’m a private investigator and I’m looking for a missing husband who’s into this game. Take another look,” said Sam as he donated a twenty to Duane’s cause.

Gardner took the bill and said, “Yeah, he was in here a couple nights ago. A nasty temper, that one. He tapped out about one in the morning and got into it with one of the other players, a regular, mind you. Had the nerve to accuse him of cheating. I threw the troublemaker out on his ear.”

“Is the guy he accused here now? Still in the game tonight?” asked Sam.

“How much do you think you can get for one Andy Jackson?” asked Gardner.

“Depends. How much more can you tell me?” Sam fished out his wallet once again, allowing a corner of another twenty to show.

“See the bald guy in the next room on the other side of the table? The one with the rich- tourist tan, only he ain’t no tourist.”

“Yeah, I see him,” said Sam, eyeing the bald guy with hairy chest exposed and a thick gold chain around his neck. “Has he got a name?”

“Don’t know for sure, but I think I heard someone call him Chester, but that may be because of his open shirt. He comes in several times a week wherever the game is played. That’s all I can tell you.” The bruiser reached for the twenty and slid it into his pants pocket.

Sam allowed Gardner to unchain the door for him. He stepped out into the hall to find Goldie still lying on the carpet, but busy chewing on something.

“Whatcha got there girl? Here, let me see.” He took a slobbered leather wallet from her mouth and flipped it open. Sure enough, the Ohio driver’s license belonged to Duane Fish. The credit cards were gone and so was all the cash. Now he was sure Duane had encountered foul play. “Where, Goldie? Where did you find it?” he whispered.

The dog tilted her head, not knowing what he meant. But when he held the wallet up she trotted to a window at the opposite end of the hall, where a potted palm stood. She stuck her nose in behind the large plant, then looked back at Sam, snorting to get rid of the dirt flecks. He gave the area the once-over, looking for signs of a struggle, but found none. Satisfied, Sam wrapped the wallet in his handkerchief and slipped it into one of his cargo-pants pockets. “Let’s go, girl,” he said as they headed down the stairs to the street. “We’re done here.”

* * * *

The next morning Sam phoned a trusted pal in his old homicide unit, Lieutenant Danny Oshiro. Danny’s sinewy body sprang to attention. He knew this was no social call. Sam asked if any unidentified stiffs had turned up in the last few days. Danny’s keen gray eyes flickered with interest behind wiry glasses. “We got two, Sam, one Asian and one haole.”

Danny’s description of the Caucasian was close enough that Sam thought he needed to check it out. No need to upset Maxine unless he verified the John Doe as Duane Fish. Forty-five minutes later, he met Danny at the morgue. The technician pulled the sheet back. Sam held up the anniversary photo, scrutinized it once more, and nodded.

“Yeah, looks like Duane Fish of Cleveland Park, Ohio. He was a tourist and a poker-playing addict. It’s the missing person’s case I’ve been working on. I’ll bring in the wife later for the formal I.D.”

“He was worked over pretty good,” said Danny, “so he must have pissed off someone along the way.” He nodded to the technician, who pulled the sheet down farther.

Sam counted at least twenty small round bruises along the rib cage.

“And there’s blunt force trauma on the back of the head as well. What do you know of his earlier whereabouts?” asked Oshiro.

“He was staying at the Surflyer Hotel with his wife and another couple. He played poker Wednesday and Thursday nights, but didn’t come home the second night. The concerned wife hired me on Saturday evening because she hadn’t seen him since Thursday. I tracked him down to the Imperial B&B in Waikiki. The bouncer said he threw Duane out around one-thirty a.m. after he went broke and got into a fight. That’s the last time anybody claims they saw him alive. By the way, where did you find the poor bastard?”

“In a dumpster about a half-block from your B&B. He was missing a wallet, a watch, and both shoes. The tox screen said he’d been drinking some, but nowhere close to drunk. The M.E. says he died between one and three that morning, but a full autopsy will be needed to determine the exact cause of death.”

“You said his wallet, watch, and both shoes were missing? Well, I can account for the wallet, anyway.” Sam pulled Duane’s wallet from his pants pocket, dropped it on an empty morgue gurney, and opened the handkerchief. “Sorry, it’s a little slimy. Goldie found it first, but maybe you can get some prints from the inside. Nothing in it but his driver’s license. Hey, Danny, how’d you know he was wearing a watch?”

“Simple. He had a tan line on his wrist.”

“You figure robbery?”

“It’s likely. One scenario might be someone desperate and deprived—maybe a homeless person—with a knowledge of the game upstairs. Could’ve waited for a well-dressed prospect to come out and rolled him for the watch and shoes. In any case, it must’ve been someone pretty strong to have hoisted him into the dumpster.”

“One more thing,” said Sam. Was there anything unusual about the crime scene?”

“Not really,” said Oshiro. “Your typical hotel back alley with multiple dumpsters and nasty trash. It did stink pretty bad of spoiled fruit juices.”

“Thanks, Dan. I guess I’d better inform Maxine Fish of her husband’s fate and bring her back for the formal I.D.”

* * * *

Something about the victim’s body nagged at Sam as he drove away from the morgue. It wasn’t until he pulled up in front of Auntie Momi’s place that it came to him: the bruise marks on Duane‘s rib cage. They were small and round, too small to be a fist. What could make such a mark? he wondered.

He rapped on the screen door. “Anybody home?” he yelled.

“Were out back, Sam.”

He found his auntie and Maxine in the garden, gathering in a few vegetables for supper. Momi, in her flowered muumuu, swallowed Sam in her arms.

Maxine dispensed with greetings. “Have you found Duane yet?”

“Not exactly,” said Sam. “That’s where I need your help.”

“Whatever do you mean—not exactly?”

“I’ll explain on the way, Maxine.” He led her out to the cab.

“Sam, when are you going to explain what you meant back there?”

“Soon, but first I have a couple of questions for you. Did you actually check out of the hotel on Saturday evening when I picked you up?”

“No, I just walked away because we had used Duane’s credit card when we checked in.”

“Do you still have the room’s card key with you?”

“Why, yes. I was going to drop it in a mailbox today.”

“Good,” he said. “Then I’ll want to drop by the hotel on our way.”

“On our way where?”

“You’ll find out shortly,” he said.

She lowered her head. Her swirls of red hair nearly hid a sullen expression.

Sam parked the cab at the end of the turnaround outside the Surflyer. Leaving Goldie in charge, he and Maxine rode the elevator to the third floor. Maxine unlocked the door and immediately ducked into the bathroom. Sam quickly scanned the room, strode to the closet, and pulled open the louvered doors. Inside, he saw a midsized bag and a carry-on, plus the usual T-shirts, aloha shirts, and slacks on hangers. He also found three pairs of men’s shoes lined up on the floor: sandals, loafers, and dress shoes. He hastily picked up each pair, sniffed them, and decided to put the black dress shoes in the carry-on. He had the closet shut and was ready to leave when Maxine exited the bathroom.

“Find what you were looking for?” she asked.

“If you don’t mind, I’m borrowing your husband’s carry-on,” he told her as he rolled it out to the hall.

“Damn, you’re one mysterious guy,” she said as they rode the elevator down to the lobby.

Sam punched in Danny Oshiro’s number. When he answered, Sam announced, “Next stop 835 Iwilei Road. Be there in twenty minutes.”

“Copy that,” said Oshiro.

“What’s that address?” Maxine asked.

“It belongs to the police,” said Sam evasively.

The uniformed receptionist informed them that Lieutenant Oshiro had not arrived yet, but they could take a seat in an adjacent waiting room.

“Is this place a morgue?” Maxine asked, an anxious tremor in her voice. She had put two and two together and come up with the obvious answer. “Is Duane . . . ?”

“I think so,” Sam replied as he studied her face. “I didn’t tell you earlier so you wouldn’t get upset in advance. And I don’t want you to get upset now, but the police have discovered a body that may fit Duane’s description. If it is him, your identification may prove invaluable to them and, of course, you. I’ll be there for you if you want me. We’re waiting for the detective in charge of this case.”

Danny Oshiro arrived ten minutes later, and the three of them were ushered into a viewing room. When they were in position, Danny spoke into a microphone. “We’re ready.” A curtain drew back on the other side of a window, revealing a gurney with a covered body. “Okay,” Oshiro said. The sheet was peeled back just to chest level, so that a less gruesome picture might be presented.

Maxine, who had turned away beforehand, now inched around slowly and bit her lip as she recognized what was left of her husband. “Yes, that’s him,” she said. “Enough!” In tears she reeled away, and the curtain was closed.

When the trio returned to the waiting room and were sitting again, Sam turned to Maxine. “Mrs. Fish, why did you kill your husband?”

“What did you say?” Her voice cracked.

“You heard me. I began to suspect you when I saw the tiny bruise marks all over your husband’s rib cage. They were made by a woman’s pointed-toe shoe—like the kind you’re wearing now,” he said, looking down at her high heels. “A woman acting out a powerful vengeance. You followed him to the poker game Thursday night and waited for him to come out. When he did, you hit him on the head and knocked him out. Then you pulled him into the alley behind the hotel. And you finished the job by kicking him in the ribs repeatedly and mercilessly, venting anger you couldn’t control.”

“There are lots of people out there who could’ve killed him,” Maxine shot back. “Why pick on me? Besides, even if I did kick him, it doesn’t mean I killed him.”

But Sam was prepared. “The M.E. said Duane died of blunt-force trauma. I’m guessing you used the half-empty brandy bottle I saw on the coffee table in your room. You probably hid it in that big fancy purse of yours when you followed him.”

“You meddling bastard. I should’ve known better than to hire you,” she said, trying to slide her body in front of her Prada hobo bag.

Calmly, Sam continued. “Then I began to think. Why would the killer take off the victim’s dress shoes? There’s one obvious answer. The killer planned to blame a homeless person, a ruse to throw the police off. I needed to see Duane’s luggage and shoes. Sure enough, you, Mrs. Fish, provided that opportunity—access to the hotel room, where I found sandals, loafers, and dress shoes in the closet. It’s not likely that a man packs three pairs of shoes for a short vacation. Lieutenant Oshiro told me about the mess at the crime scene, the dumpster. So I decided to sniff all the shoes in the closet. The dress shoes reeked of rancid pineapple, orange, and guava juices, as I suspected. Those shoes are in my trunk, packed in the carry-on bag. I’m sure the lab technicians will link them to the crime scene, and if you left any prints, they’ll link them to you as well.”

“That was an illegal search!” she declared, stomping her foot.

“No way,” said Sam. “I accompanied you to the room, and you willingly opened the door for me. You cooperated with my search. And don’t forget, you hired me to act on your behalf. There’s only one way the shoes got from the crime scene to the hotel room. You took them there to hide them in plain sight. You thought it would be a sure-fire way to deflect suspicion from yourself onto an innocent homeless person.”

Maxine leaped up and lunged forward, looking toward the double doors to escape. She was counting on out-muscling the lieutenant, but he was already on his feet. Her gym workouts were no match for Danny’s martial arts skills. One karate kick threw her off balance. She shrieked in protest. Pulling her up, he clamped cuffs on her wrists behind her back. While reciting her Miranda rights, he led her out through those same doors.

Sam followed soon after. Settling into the driver’s seat, he chatted with his partner, “At least we have what’s left of our thousand-dollar P.I. fee. For two days’ work—it’s about the same as we’d make for our taxi services, girl. But we got our man—or rather, woman. Didn’t we, Detective Goldie?”

“Rrruff!”

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