/ Language: English / Genre:detective

Dead Wrong About the Guy

Frederick Zackel


Frederick Zackel

Dead Wrong About the Guy

The waitress was young, maybe seventeen years old, very short and very skinny. She looked fragile and small, a mere whisper of a woman, which I figured she hated about herself. But I could also see she was working hard at overcoming her faults. See, her blonde hair had been chopped short and then dyed a bright magenta. She also had three earrings in one ear and a butterfly tattoo on the crest of her right breast.

She was the waitress on duty at the Pier Inn Restaurant and I was in the back booth. I was her last lunch customer. Although it fronted the piers and the gas dock, the restaurant was a bit out of the way, a tad off the beaten track and not flashy enough to attract the tourists, like this part of Maui itself. Inside, the eatery had checkered curtains and no table cloths, a half-dozen tables, booths along either side wall, and a counter with swivel stools.

I looked up from my paper as she approached. "What did the parrot say about me?"

The skinny young waitress was caught off-guard, and so she blushed, which surprised her. She hadn't seen me look over at her. She got ballsy to cover her confusion. "I said, that's a guy married to his job," she said. "I said, look how he's got his head buried in a newspaper."

"And what’s that mean to you?"

"What a waste! If he moves his head six inches, bang!, he's looking at one of the most sensational sunsets Maui ever had."

I looked out at the sunset, then at her.

"Well, you had your head buried in that newspaper," she said lamely.

I looked at the newspaper, then at her.

She said, "That newspaper's the dead giveaway. When I see a guy with his nose in a newspaper like that, he's used to traveling alone and eating alone. Bet you spend your whole life on business trips. You’re a salesman or something. Bet you doesn't even know what state you’re in now."

"So, do you talk to the parrot a lot?"

"Only when the place is slow." She turned on a dime and became a waitress again. "I didn't think you were ready to order."

I folded the paper, set it aside, and gave her my undivided attention. "I'm ready to order now."

She said, "Okay. What would you like?"

"I'll have a chef salad. Blue cheese on the side."

"Anything to drink?"

"Coffee. Black."

"Anything else?"

I shook my head, gave her back the menu. When she left for the kitchen, I watched her walk. Once her cute little butt disappeared into the kitchen, I went back to my newspaper.

Moments later, she returned with my salad.

"Thanks."

I started eating, still reading my newspaper.

The waitress went behind the counter, poured herself a cup of coffee, and watched me for a while. She brought the coffee pot and filled my cup. I looked up, "noticed" her so I smiled a customer's smile, but said nothing to her, and she said nothing to me.

She came back when I was half-finished.

"How was it?" she asked.

I didn't look up. "Fine."

She didn't leave. "You always eat just a salad only?"

I noticed her for the second time. "Yeah."

"You don't look like a vegetarian."

"You live longer if you keep your weight down."

She looked at the broad-leafed salad and she knew better.

I added, "That's if you don't die from the pesticides first."

She stared suspiciously at my chef's salad, then looked quizzically at the guy. "Something I should know about?"

"No. There was nothing wrong with my salad."

"Oh. Okay." She tried being a waitress again. "How’s your meal?"

"It was as magnificent as Maui. Or you."

We made eye contact, and I was surprised that her eyes could meet mine for as long they did. When she found herself blushing, she left for the kitchen. I smiled.

As she left, Flea Nichols entered the restaurant.

I almost laughed seeing Flea Nichols after all those years. Flea was a small guy in his thirties, but he was already out-of-shape. And though his hair was receding, he wore it long and tied back in a ponytail. He wore a gaudy aloha shirt two sizes too big for him. Spindly legs poked out of his khaki shorts. Seeing the man in the back booth, he went pale as a ghost.

I beckoned Flea to join me. Flea Nichols reluctantly came and sat across from me.

I laughed, then slapped Flea Nichols' leg. "So tell me about it, Flea!" I said cheerily. "Tell me why I came four thousand miles to see you."

Flea's fingers trembled as he took ten one-hundred dollar bills from his wallet and passed them across the table to me.

I looked the money over. The bills were real, used bills and out of sequence. I didn't return the money. They were mine now.

Flea was jittery. "They're real, Mister Paoli. A guy up here gave them to me to get somebody willing to listen to a deal he wants pulled off."

We cruised past the city limits of Kahului in my rented Mustang.

I said, "Up here? You mean, over here, not up here."

Flea shrugged whatever. "He wants this deal bad. He can't do it himself, 'cause everybody knows him too well. He'd be the first place they'd look if anything came down."

"What's his name?"

"Corky Collins."

"How much money does he have?"

Flea doesn't know, can't guess. "He's rich enough, I know that."

"Where's his money come from? Tourists?"

"Chickens, actually. Yeah, chickens. Fryers, actually. He raises and sells chickens to restaurants and grocery stores. And he owns a chicken processing plant next to City Park. It's not a big operation, but most of the farmers go through him."

I was amused. "A chicken farmer. Well, why not? His money's as good as yours, right, Flea?"

We passed a roadsign of a leaping deer with a bullethole through his chest. I noticed that the sight of the deer with a bullethole made Flea wince.

"So he went to you. Flea Nichols. The bookkeeper."

Flea sank into despair. "He didn't know anybody in Vegas, even, and you know how long I lived there."

"Income tax preparation, that was your front, wasn't it?"

"I was always legit on that, Mister Paoli."

"What's he got on you, Flea?"

"Checks," Flea reluctantly admitted.

I was stunned by his stupidity. "You kited bad paper?"

Flea was embarrassed. "Yeah, well ... See, getting him an interview with you, with whoever got sent, is the only way I can get those checks back. He threatened to turn me in to the Sheriff's Office--"

"How did he know about you?"

"All I know is, he retraced my steps, everything, and found out about my record, all the time I served, and started leaning on me--"

I was ice. "Have you been using your real name, Flea?"

"Why not?" Flea whined. "How would anybody over here know I did time?"

I snorted at such incredible stupidity.

"Hey, I came over here straight, and I swear it, I been straight, really."

"How come you don't leave over here?"

Flea said, "I love it too much, Mister Paoli. I love Maui a lot. I want to stay and stop running in circles like some hamster in a cage."

"Here?" I looked out the window at Maui, as if for the first time, to see what Flea found in Maui. "What's here?"

Flea continued, "Maybe, when you get to a certain age, you just start thinking about settling in."

I stared at him with disbelief. "A two-bit shit like you saying that?"

"Can you help me?"

I wouldn't commit. "Calling us was the only thing you done smart. And that still might not be enough. Who knows what this guy's got going down."

Flea was almost pleading. "This guy's got this deal going down, Mister Paoli, and he's got me hassled into the middle of it, and I don't know what else to do!"

I snorted my contempt. "I can believe that."

Suddenly Flea reached over and turned off the ignition. The car died, and it slowed like a slug on the highway.

Flea was frantic. "You can't leave me helpless like this."

The Mustang stayed stopped in the fast lane of the highway. A few cars came up behind us, then went around us. Some assholes even tooted their horns.

I ignored them all and made no move to restart the Mustang. I stared, amazed and surprised, at the desperate Flea.

"I got no chance of surviving without you in on it!"

"Why should I help you? Who are you, Flea? Hey, nobody calls you Flea because you're a big man."

"Mister Paoli, please!"

I stared for a long moment at Flea. Amused at seeing a new, even more desperate side to Flea, I decided I wanted to see more of this new man.

"Okay, I will look around--"

Flea was surprised. "Then you'll help me?"

I shrugged. "I won't go that far.

"Thank you, thank you, Mister Paoli--"

"I'll look around," I cautioned Flea. "Nothing more--"

"Thank you," Flea gushed, "thank you, Mister Paoli."

"One thing first, Flea. While I'm here, you call me Michael Bishop. Don't call me Paoli, understand?"

Flea agreed instantly. "Yes, sir, Mister Paoli." Then he corrected himself. "Yes, sir, Mister Bishop!"

I stared with sad, menacing eyes. I started the Mustang.

Paradise Bowl was a bowling alley set off from the highway, between an auto muffler shop and a karaoke saloon. It was a two story building that could withstand a hurricane or an economic boom. The parking lot was crushed lava and half-filled with older model cars. a sign out front said "Bowl Where The Pros Bowl."

Flea kept me from leaving the Mustang. "Ah, Mister Pao-- Mister Bishop!" He was frightened. "After this is all over ... I mean, I'm being straight with you on this whole deal ... " He started pleading. "Don't blame me, okay, Mister Paoli, please?"

I made no promises.

We left the Mustang and walked towards the building.

"Why are we here, Flea?"

"See, his ranch and the processing plant pretty much run themselves, so he just hangs out playing poker in the card room upstairs."

"A regular game?"

Flea nodded. "He plays every afternoon and gets home for supper every night."

At the front door, a deputy sheriff leaving the building held the door open for us entering. I thanked him.

Once inside, I elbowed Flea. "I gather the cops don't know about the game."

Flea just looked desperate.

The bowling alley was noisy and full of beer breath and cigarette smoke. A woman in her mid-forties was working the cashier's counter. We looked each other over, but I looked away first. She was attractive, but her eyes were dead as a doornail from boredom. I felt her eyes follow us as we moved through the bowling alley.

Flea led me past the bowlers, down a back corridor, through a side door, and then up a narrow staircase. We went through a storage area, surrounded by crates and cartons, and entered the last room at the rear of the building.

We stood watching a five-handed poker game. All the players were in their mid-forties or older. They noticed us, recognized Flea, then ignored us both.

Flea deciphered the game. "Twenty bucks is the buy-in. Minimum ante is a quarter. Fumble the shuffle and your hand dies. No limit on table stakes."

"Which one's the one?"

"The one with his back to the wall," Flea said.

"And his name is?"

"Corky Collins."

When Corky Collins spotted Flea Nichols, his face stayed poker blank. He was a smug and cocky bantam rooster. He decided to tell his newest joke. "You boys all know what a Freudian slip is, right?" he asked his card buddies. Once they grunted, he began:

"These two guys are sitting in the cocktail lounge over at Honolulu International, a couple bar stools away from each other, both looking mournful. The first one says, Jesus, did I make a Freudian slip today. My wife and I were in the ticket counter, the airline clerk had these great ol' melons for breasts, and I gotta tell her, 'Give me two tits to Los Angeles!'"

The card players suspended their disbelief.

Corky Collins said, "The second guy says, That's nothing. This morning my wife burns the toast, and I said, 'Bitch, you've ruined my life!'"

He preened, while the other players, all long-time married men, snickered, or snorted, or generally noted their approval.

Corky started counting his chips. "Deal me out, boys."

"His back's to the wall." I was amused. "Only time I see that is in bad Western movies."

I asked Flea, "Which way's the restroom?"

Corky Collins followed us into the restroom and found me washing my hands with a bar of soap provided by the bowling alley. He gave me a big grin and extended his hand to shake my hand.

"Corky Collins."

"Michael Bishop." I dried my hands before I shook his hand. "Talk to me, Corky Collins."

Corky said, "Flea said you were a contractor. That you can get things done."

I corrected him. "I'm an estimator. This visit is just an estimate I'm making. I look over the job and then I make my report to the home office. Maybe we make a bid on the job. Maybe not."

Corky looked me over, must have had his doubts because the fool decided to play hardball. "You don't look like a professional killer," Corky said.

I couldn’t believe the fucker could be so dumb!

I was sharp. "You got a big mouth!"

Flea stepped between us. He was deferential to me. "He's just from a different world, Mister Bishop."

Irritated with Flea's standing up for my interests and not his, Corky jabbed me with a finger. "I made a sizable investment here--"

I didn't lose my temper. I simply jabbed Corky's face twice quickly. With my free hand, I shoved Corky's shirtfront and knocked him off-balance. Corky, caught by surprise, slipped and fell to one knee.

Over my shoulder, I said, "Watch the door, Flea!"

I motivated Flea with a shove towards the restroom door. As Corky got to his feet, I pushed the man against the shithouse walls and grabbed him by the throat, that handful of flesh surrounding the windpipe, twisted my fist and that brought Corky back to his knees again.

Corky was helpless in my grip. He couldn't breathe, was being strangled, was choking. Me, I felt good.

I kept my face smooth as ice. "Small men shouldn't have such big mouths," I said softly.

Corky was turning red in the face, maybe was dying.

Then Flea was hissing like a snake. "Mister Paoli, please!"

I flung Corky Collins aside, then turned on Flea. I grabbed Flea by the shirt, slammed him into the wall, and hoisted him up close. I breathed my anger on him, but couldn’t talk for a moment.

"Your mouth, too!" I snarled, and shoved him off to one side.

Flea shrank away, pleading. "Please!"

"That's the second time today you've interfered!"

"You gotta let him live, Mr. Paoli!"

I kicked Flea in the side of the head, but not lethal, then hauled Corky by the shirt to his feet. I grabbed the bar of soap from the sink, then pushed Corky against the urinals. With my hand, I pushed Corky's chin up, exposing the soft fleshy neck. Then I used the soap to draw a line across Corky's throat.

"Next time I'll use a knife!"

I threw the bar of soap in the sink.

Corky could talk again.

He rasped, "I gave you a thou--"

I cut him off. "Fuck your money! And fuck you!" I stalked from the restroom.

Outside, in the parking lot I stalked over to my rental. I should have driven off. Instead, I glowered at the dark ocean and I hated myself most for staying. I was still raging when Flea Nichols caught up with me.

"He's an asshole!" I turned to Flea. "And don't call me Paoli again!"

Flea was contrite. "I'm sorry, sir."

Corky Collins, whipped and sheepish, came out of the bowling alley. He had wet some paper towels and was still rubbing away at his neck.

"Please meet with him again," Flea begged.

I stared at Flea and thought of every reason why I should split. And I thought about the one reason I was staying. I ended up laughing more at myself than at the situation. Then I relented. I gestured east, up the coast. "Tell him ten minutes. First turn-off, two miles from here. That way!"

Flea hurried off.

I watched Flea talking with Corky. "Assholes!" I growled. I took a deep breath. "But this is the last one!" I swore. I wasn't being paid enough to put up with this crap.

Flea came back, and we climbed in the Mustang.

I made sure the Mustang left the parking lot in a hurry, my spinning tires spewing gravel and dust. Corky Collins, looking lost, desperate and whipped, watched us leave. After a moment's hesitation, he walked to his own pickup truck.

When Corky's pickup truck arrived at the meeting place, I had the Mustang parked off the highway, away from the tourists. There were several phone booths at this roadside stop. I watched Corky park his truck and walk over to us. Then I made Flea go walk on the beach.

Corky was still sheepish. "I was out of line."

"What do you want done?"

"Flea told you, didn't he?"

"I need to hear you say it."

"I'll pay ten thousand dollars to have my wife killed," Corky said.

"You do know murdering your wife is illegal."

Corky blinked, surprised I would even consider bringing up the obvious.

"Murder for Hire. That usually starts with a jail sentence of twenty-five years to life. With good behavior, you'd get out in seventeen years."

"Why all this shit?"

"I want you to know what you're getting into. Going through with this, your life will never be the same ever again."

Corky was impatient. "I know that."

"And I want you to know how Vegas feels about this offer of yours. At the least, we're very suspicious."

"Ten grand if you can do it."

"Don't quote prices to me. I'm just the estimator."

"I figured the price would be a straight-forward--"

I was grinning, a gambler with a superior hand. "Oh, no, Mister Corky Collins. Whacking somebody you love is a serious thing. It's got to mean something to you." I poked Corky's chest with a stiff finger. "Just so you can appreciate what we're doing for you." I poked him harder. "And you will pay whatever the price is."

"That's all I can afford!"

"We'll be the judge of that."

"Hey, you already got a grand!"

I rejected that. "Expenses."

"Okay. But if it's a deal, then that grand is part of the final price."

I laughed, but didn't disagree.

"So how soon will I know?"

"I will look things over first. All that takes time." I faced the ocean again. "Some things I already don't like the looks of."

Corky tried being bold. "Maybe I should get somebody else to do the job."

I turned back, changed my tone of voice, got low and menacing. "As of now, we are the only bidders on the job. There are no others until after we make our decision."

Corky made a rude noise.

"You don't talk to any other outfits and you don't take matters into your own hands."

Corky tried being cocky. "Or else--?"

"Or else we whack you," I said.

Corky backed down. "What else?"

"I want a copy of every key on your key ring. We don't know which one we'll need, and we may need it in a hurry."

"It's gotta be authentic--" Corky said nervously.

"If we jimmy while she's alive, anything can happen. She can call the cops. She can protect herself with a kitchen knife. Once she's dead, we can go back and jimmy the locks to make them look right. By the way, you got a dog at home?"

"Yeah," Corky said, mystified.

"Get rid of him now. Before we need to have him gone. Before people notice him gone on the night we do it. And we need a map of your house. Every room and who's in it."

"How soon?"

"Go home and start now. Take your time at it. Let's do it right while we've got the time."

I walked away, followed by Flea, leaving Corky Collins behind.

Flea was impressed by the complimentary fruit basket in my room at the Beach Chalet. The hotel was on the beach at Kaanapali. It was as expensive as Las Vegas, but the room had more light and more fresh air. And of course the room had a view of the ocean.

I ignored him, the basket and the view and kept paging through the newspaper I had bought earlier in Lahaina. One headline on page ten read "Senator Urges East Maui Nat'l Park."

I said, "What's different between Maui and Vegas for you, Flea?"

Flea was confused and defensive. "I like Maui because it's dark at night. In Vegas you never know if it's day or night. Ever notice they got no clocks in the casinos?"

I stared at the headline. "I think that's my handle." I considered all the angles, liked how they connected, then said to Flea, "If anybody asks, I'm working with the National Park Service."

Flea did not understand. "How come?"

I set down my paper. "It just dawned on me. Flea, you're not even making expenses on this deal."

"I'm getting those checks back."

"What happens when it's over? What do you do next? Where do you go?"

Flea didn't understand. "I don't go nowhere. I stay here and do the same things I did yesterday, last month, the same things I did before all this shit started."

"Why stay here?"

"There's no place else I want to be. Everybody's got a place like that. You got Vegas, don't you? It's the same thing with me."

"How much were the checks for?"

Flea tasted bile with each word. "Five bills."

"For what? What did you spend the money on? Women? Dope? Are you back on the booze?" I remembered: "Horses!"

Flea squirmed. "I thought I had one this time."

I laughed. "Flea, you're always dead wrong on everything!"

"The horse couldn't run, that's all."

"One race or a bunch of races?"

Flea was silent, condemning himself.

"What else has he got on you?"

"Just the checks, Mister Paoli."

I disbelieved. "You were willing to escalate yourself up to Murder One just because some local yokel's got you for bad checks?"

"I wanna stay here," Flea said. "I like it here. Back in Vegas a guy can end up dead for dumb reasons."

"Better than risk getting busted for bad paper, you agree to solicit Murder One."

Flea had nothing worth saying.

"Didn't you never think that just maybe going to county jail for six, seven months for bad checks was smarter than committing Murder One for somebody else?"

Flea was consumed by anguish. "I don't want to do any more time."

I was sour. "No, Flea, you wanted to get us involved instead." I became somber. "You know, Flea, there is going to be an accounting."

But Flea had given up. "What choice did I have?"

Twilight brought a calming of the sea, and most boats returned to their harbor. I showed up at the Pier Inn, where that skinny young waitress was busied herself busing tables. I took a table near her. I let her wait on me.

"Could I have some coffee?" I said. "Black."

She brought my coffee and set it in front of me.

My hand swept out over the chair on the other side of the table. "How 'bout joining me?"

She was wistfully smiling. "I couldn't." She glanced at the clock above the jukebox. "I got customers."

I spoke with my sexiest voice: "Please."

Slowly, she slid in across from me.

"Michael Bishop."

"Ivy Lawson."

"Ivy's a pretty name," I said. "How’d you get it?"

Ivy sloughed it off. "I was born two months premature. My mom and dad said I was hardly a handful. He named me Ivy because of how I was clinging to life, after the doctors had given up on me. Where are you from?"

"Las Vegas."

"What do you do for a living?"

"I work for the National Parks Service.

Ivy started laughing. "Smokey the Bear!"

"Hey, somebody’s gotta. How do you like living here?"

Ivy fell into a black mood again. "I hate it. The only thing to do here is sit around and watch night fall."

I was smiling. "So why not leave?"

Ivy appraised me. "D'you want to take me away from all this?"

I shook my head. Ivy pouted.

She took a chance. "So, are you married?"

"No," I said. "So, are you married?"

"No," Ivy said.

"You still live with your folks?"

"Not since my dad died two years ago. Now I have my own place." She gestured down the highway. "My uncle lives in Lihue. He looks in on me now and then, sees if I'm doing okay."

"Are you doing okay?"

She had a sour pout. No, she wasn't doing okay.

"So what keeps you here?"

"This crummy job, for one thing," Ivy said. "Not enough money yet to leave." She became more upbeat. "Someday I'm gonna leave. First chance I get."

"You might check Vegas out. There's something going on twenty-four hours a day every day. You could get a job there easily."

"I like dancing," Ivy said.

I was smiling. "Topless?"

Ivy blushed. "Not with what I got."

She pissed me off. "It's not what you got, Ivy, but how you carry yourself. Remember that. You parade, everybody notices you, and nobody notices what you got."

She was skeptical. "Not with what I got."

The silence stretched like a lazy cat, and we became uncomfortable with each other. But we didn't stop looking at each other.

I started grinning again. "How about if I drive you home after work?"

Ivy thought it over. "I don't want to go home after work." She slid out of the booth. "I gotta get back to work."

I stayed and watched her work.

She came back to me and said, "I feel like I'm on trial."

"I’ll read my newspaper instead."

"You can look now and then."

The Pier Inn closed at nine. When we left, I helped Ivy into the passenger side. I walked around, got in behind the driver's wheel. I started the car and was ready to drive off, but the skinny young waitress stopped me from turning the ignition key.

"All night, okay?" she said wistfully. "I mean, I don't want to have to get up and leave in the middle of the night."

I was taken aback. "You stay all night with me."

Ivy was relieved. Me, I got to thinking about that.

Man, this town had treated her shabby.

At my Beach Chalet room we made love with a full moon from an open window lighting up our naked sweatiness. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s taking a woman to her limit and beyond. I didn’t come by that talent naturally. A lot of hungry women in Vegas taught me how.

Ivy clutched the mattress with both hands as I brought her to orgasm. Her eyes were closed in rapture. She cried out sharply.

I felt like bragging about it to someone, too.

When she was sated, Ivy still lay on top of me, nearly asleep on me. I caressed her forearms, then nudged her shoulders to move. She didn't respond, so I nudged her again.

"Bathroom--" I murmured.

Ivy roused herself. "Hmmm?"

As we broke apart, her grip on my arm tightened, and she kept me from moving away.

Ivy blurted out: "Oh, god, I love you!"

I caught the passion in her voice. "Oh yeah?"

Ivy was struck silent. She looked self-conscious and embarrassed. I figured she hadn’t been with many men, and all of them had been selfish. Then I started feeling something special for her.

When I came back to bed, I said, "Let me do you again."

Her eyes widened. When I started on her, her eyes slowly closed.

I was feeling good, too. This was Paradise, I realized.

How was I to know she was telling the truth?

A blood-red sunrise came over the Pacific Ocean. Inside my hotel room we lay in bed, my arm around her, her head on my shoulder. We were exhausted, but awake.

"Just a week and then you're gone?"

I nodded. "I gotta work for a living, Ivy."

Ivy had sad eyes. "I don't want to lose you."

"We got no choice, Ivy."

"Do me again," she pleaded.

I teased her. "I don't know if I ought to. I might be ruining you for the next guy who comes along."

She was in no mood for my teasing.

She punched me. "Do me again!"

We cruised along the highway in my Mustang.

I looked around at the Maui landscape, marveling. I was surprised how much I was enjoying Hawaii. I looked out at the view. "It is beautiful!"

Ivy was frowning, annoyed. "If it's beautiful, there's no work. No work means no money. No money and nothing to spend it on is no fun. Maui is no fun." She crossed her arms in protest. "All I want to do is get outa here, go have some fun somewhere."

"The bright lights of Vegas maybe."

"Maybe."

"You willing to dance topless?"

"Maybe."

I took my time speaking. "I could see me living here."

Ivy was amazed.

"I like the idea of an island. A place where I can just get away from it all."

Ivy scoffed at that. "There's no here anywhere here!"

"It's true enough. Maybe I've just seen too much of the real world."

Ivy understood. "You must travel a lot."

"Yeah. Mostly the East Coast, though. I don't get much chance to work Out West. Even then it's only LA or San Francisco."

"Out West," she said, then giggled. She caught my puzzlement. Then she felt uncomfortable and felt she had to explain herself. "Maui people don't think about Hawaii being Out West. Out West is ... " She gestured toward the Mainland. "Back East from here."

I was amused. "I guess Out West is Back East from here."

We parked in front of her apartment building. We sat in the Mustang, both of us unready to make a move.

She was timid. "If I went to Vegas ... ?"

I nodded. "I'd help you out. Help you find a job, a place to live."

"D'you think I'd like it there?"

I wasn’t sure. "Maybe. It's like an escalator. You just step on the escalator and you get whisked along. The floor you stop at is a matter of luck, of course. How long you stay there is up to how good you are at playing the game." I thought of all the years I had been a player. Too many years. Too many games.

Ivy stopped me. "I just want to be free. Really free. I want to have fun. I don't want to end up a slut."

"Nobody with me is a slut," I said, and I meant it.

We made eye contact. I could see she wanted to believe me.

"I'll see you for lunch, Ivy." I kissed her.

"I got the whole day off," she told me.

I shook my head, pained. "I gotta go work for a living."

We kissed again. Then I left.

On Front Street in beautiful Lahaina, the tradewinds were rustling the leaves of the palm trees. Tourists meandered in aloha shirts, shorts and sandals. Most never saw a weather-beaten two-story wooden building at the far end of the commercial strip. "The Shell Shoppe," a commercial business dealing in seashells for the tourists, was the storefront on the ground floor. Upstairs, a placard in a window said: "Income Tax."

I stopped in front of the Shell Shoppe. Flea Nichols came down the outside staircase and climbed inside. Then we drove off.

"You got dinner okay last night?" Flea asked.

I nodded, watched a sheriff's patrol car pass us.

"Where'd you eat at? The Pier Inn? Pretty good food, right?" Flea had a long pause. "D'you see Ivy Lawson there?"

I frowned. "Magenta-haired chick, right?"

"Pretty, isn't she?"

I was curious. "You know her?

Flea was distant. "She's wonderful."

I noticed this. "You getting any of that?"

Flea was wistful. "I wish I could. But she's too good for me."

"Yeah. When you're right, you're right."

Flea was confused. He wondered what he had missed.

Flea and I watched the boats in Lahaina Bay. Behind us, Corky Collins parked his truck and then walked over to us, covertly looking to see if anyone was watching them. Any fool would have recognized what he was doing.

"Go set it up," I said to Flea.

Flea left us, walked to his car and drove off. Corky and I walked off together.

"Now we can get down to business," Corky said.

"Why should we even talk with you?" I wondered.

Corky didn't know what to say to this.

"We don't need you. We have our own ways to make money, and we make a good living at it. What you would pay is ... that's nothing."

"I guess that's right," Corky said.

"Another point, too," I said. "An ex-alkie contacts us. He's got a business deal for us. Murder For Hire. Now, don't you think that's a little strange?"

"How would I know?"

"This is a very strange deal. Somebody like Flea Nichols ballsy enough to contact us. Also, knowing how to contact us. And behind him, living out here somebody like you. We don't know you from Adam, and maybe we should. So what do you want with us, pal? Are you a cop?"

"No!"

"Maybe you're a plant trying to infiltrate us. Maybe this is entrapment. Maybe you're trying to bust me."

"I'm not," Corky said.

"Maybe you're for real, and playing straight with us. Maybe you're not and you're just conning us."

"Oh, no!"

I looked around the harbor, but I indicated all of Maui. "Not too many unsolved murders here, are there? Which means, if we whack your old lady, the only way we do it is so you got an air-tight, iron-clad alibi."

"I have to have that!"

"And maybe our guy don't make a clean getaway, gets killed or caught during the commission of a crime, or killed while trying to escape."

Corky was adamant: "You people make your own escape."

"Oh, we know that, Corky. That's normal. The cost of doing business. But this is a delicate situation. It can ricochet in many different directions. D'you see how fast this could become a frame-up or a set-up or a fuck-up?"

"It's none of those," Corky said.

"See, you're the one coming out of this with the alibi. I mean, that's the whole idea. That's why we gotta know all the answers."

"Go ahead. Ask your questions."

"How do you get along with your wife? D'you two still sleep together?"

"Of course we do."

"Ever fight?"

"We haven't had a fight in years," Corky said.

"Ever fought in public?"

"Never. We get along fine."

"When was the last time you fucked her?"

"Last night," Corky said.

"Were you any good?"

"Last night I was very good," Corky said.

"Good for you!" I marveled at the man. "You are a cold-hearted man."

Corky was angered. "Get on with it!"

"Does she fear for her life?"

Corky was grim. "She should. No. She has no idea I want her dead."

"Does she want a divorce?"

Corky shook his head. "She thinks we're happily married."

"Any other women in your life?"

Corky started swaggering. "Once this is all over--"

I gave him no time out. "Does your wife know you're horny for other women?"

"I'm forty-six years old," Corky said. "If I stop looking at other women, I might as well be dead." He felt vehemently about this. "She thinks it's just male ego, male pride. After all, I am almost fifty years old! She thinks it's a good thing. She thinks it's cute."

"How do you feel?"

"My wife's gotten old. Sure, she's a year younger than me, but I feel twenty-five inside, and she looks forty-five." Corky was aware what he was saying was bullshit. He lowered his voice. "It's immoral. It's degrading. Here I am feeling twenty-five, and yet I'm sleeping with a forty-five year old woman."

"Have you ever been arrested?"

"Never." Then Corky hesitated, remembering. "I was arrested for drunk driving seven years ago."

"And that's all?" I asked.

Corky nodded. "Why?"

"When your wife turns up murdered, if the cops got their suspicions about you already, that's the end of both of us.

Corky was suddenly very tired. "Why can't you just blow her away? When are you going to decide?"

I was smiling, still amused by the man. "Nothing's going to happen for a while."

"Why not!"

"Killing people is easy," I said. "People do it all the time. Amateurs kill on the spur of the moment, and then they get popped by the cops just like that. Professionals take their time and don't get caught."

Corky was thoughtful. I made sense to him.

Afterwards I parked in a scenic area overlooking the Pacific. There were no other cars around. I waited until Flea Nichols drove up and parked nearby. Flea left his car and walked to my car, then climbed in on the passenger side.

"Corky went to a phone booth," Flea said, "but I didn't hear what he said or who he was talking to."

"So he's not doing this alone," I muttered.

Flea missed my words. "What?"

I ignored him. "They put a parking lot on a cliff and call it a state park? What's so special about this cliff?"

Flea gestured at the ocean. "The waves out there. I don't remember what they call them, but I know they're special."

I did not understand. "Why would anybody give a shit about ocean waves? Hell, they kept coming in forever, don't they?" I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. "Waves." I gave it up as lost. "What's Corky's old lady look like?"

"She's a nice-looking woman," Flea said.

"How's he get along with her?"

"He can't be getting on too good with her, if he wants her wasted."

"Is it visible? I mean, can Joe Blow catch on?"

"I never thought so. This thing's taken me by surprise."

I gave up. "Good-bye, Flea."

Flea Nichols slunk out of my car like a wet cat. He didn't slam the door behind him well enough and had to reopen and close it again before it was shut tightly.

I shook my head with disgust. "If I didn’t need the money--!" I rammed it into gear, popped the clutch, and the Mustang flew down the highway, until I disappeared around the next curve.

An elementary school was below the opened window in Ivy's bedroom. I listened to the rhythm of bedsprings already at a fevered pitch creaking like a ship in rough seas, as her small urgent female moans grew louder and louder, and I wondered if we were going to drown out the noise of the kids playing in the schoolyard.

When Ivy Lawson reached orgasm, she called upon the Creator, and then she and the creaking bed both stopped. The school bell rang and the little kids went inside. Then the distant sounds of surf and the rustle of palm trees and banana leaves in the wind again had the afternoon to themselves.

We were sated and naked in her bed by the open window, Ivy prostrate on top of me. After a moment she slowly struggled to lift herself off me. She wiped the sweat from her breasts with a bed sheet, then wiped the sweat off my chest before laying her head on me. She snuggled closer to me, gratefully.

I kissed her. "Tell me about Corky Collins."

"Why?"

"He's one of the people I have to talk with about this National Park."

I waited for her to catch her breath.

"Corky and my dad were fishing buddies," Ivy said. "He's a nice guy. A little blustery, but he's got a warm heart."

"Does he flirt with the ladies?"

"That old guy! Besides, he's married. He's nuts about his wife. They're both nuts about each other. They're going to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary next month. The whole town'll help them celebrate. There's going to be a luau, a band, cake and champagne ... "

"I heard he's getting a divorce."

Ivy stopped. "No shit!" She thought it over. "A divorce would cost him plenty."

"How much does he have?"

"Plenty," Ivy said.

I felt great, so I kissed her again and kept caressing her curves of flesh. I like the feel of female skin.

Ivy was relishing this much attention. "We have to do this more often!"

I had a lazy smile. "Your turn, Ivy. Do me again."

Ivy smiled a dirty smile, then slowly slid down the length of my naked body. I felt like a million dollars.

The sign on the building read "First Bank of Maui." The sign on the door in the back of the bank said "Ollie Salazar Bank President."

I sat across the desk from Ollie Salazar. I recognized the short, slight banker as one of yesterday’s poker players from the Paradise Bowl.

"God, but you boys work fast," Ollie said. "Only yesterday I was reading about this National Park idea."

I cautioned him. "That's just one Senator with a suggestion. It isn't law yet, and it may never be."

"Yes, but still--" Ollie tried another tack. "If the National Park Service can send you here--"

"This is not an official visit. In fact, if you check with the regional office, they will deny anyone is here. Officially, I'm a tourist. I want to see how big the coastline is, how many people live around here, what they're like--"

"That's a good cover story," Ollie said.

"Mister Salazar, how do you like the idea of a East Maui National Park?"

Ollie was dubious. "People here are concerned about tourists, congestion, too much traffic--"

"Of course," I said.

"What does Uncle Sam do when he makes a National Park?

"The absolute minimum," I admitted. "We put in some parking lots. Public outhouses, too. Wherever there's a parking lot. By the cliffs, too, so the tradewinds can keep them fresh.

Ollie was still dubious. "Oh."

"The idea is to protect the land for the ages."

The banker blinked. "Well, there would be some development, wouldn't there?"

"At the same time, we want to help existing businesses within the local community.

Ollie brightened. "Really!"

I admitted it: "Some landowners could become multi-millionaires overnight."

Ollie grinned. Now Uncle Sam was talking his language. "How can I help you, Mister Bishop?"

"How well do you know Corky Collins?"

Ollie was completely confused. "Corky? Him? He's an old friend. We play poker together."

I was deliberately vague. "He seems representative of the community."

"Oh, he is, he is," Ollie said. "His family is very prominent in Maui history. Still--"

"And influential?

Ollie shook his head angrily. "You're barking up the wrong tree. He won't sell his land. That land's been in the Collins' family since Hawaii had kings and queens."

"Sometimes some public protesters are privately holding out for a better price," I suggested.

Ollie thought of something else. "His wife, too. Saundra loves that land as much as he does. She'll take a shotgun to you if she finds out you're with the federal government."

I pretended his wife was a new wrinkle. "How long have they been married?"

"Almost twenty-five years. They got two boys. Fine boys. Hell, both grown men actually."

"How does Corky get along with his wife? Any chance they'll be separated or get divorced?"

"None that I can see. If they quarrel, who knows? Not in public, anyway. Of course that ranch of his is a half-mile back from the highway."

"Your bank handles estate planning, right? Are they rich?"

Ollie tried computing: "Let's see. That ranch of his. Three thousand acres of land. His processing plant. Some commercial property in town, too. Refrigerated warehouses and some loading docks. His total estate if he croaked this minute?" He tried finding a final sum. "Oh, maybe two million."

"Does he throw his money around?"

Ollie snickered. "Corky's so cheap, he'd fuck his wife, then go to the whorehouse, just so he's got his ten bucks worth."

"Who handles his insurance?"

Ollie began flipping through his Rolodex. "Stu Phillips. I've got his number around here somewhere."

I stood. "Just his address. I might not get there right away. You've been most helpful, Mister Salazar--"

Ollie stood and shook my hand. "Call me Ollie!"

I left then. But even before I reached my Mustang, I knew Ollie Salazar was on the phone, his eyes wide, his mouth flapping away. Some people you can trust just like that.

A sign out on Front Street said: "Stu Phillips Insurance."

I took the staircase that led upstairs to the second floor. Within minutes, I sat across from and was talking to Stu Phillips, who was only too happy to help out a government man.

I said, "How about insurance, Mister Phillips? Does he have adequate coverage?"

"I don't think so. Corky's an optimist who believes nothing bad will ever happen to him."

"How about his wife?"

"Saundra? Oh, she's got adequate coverage. I got him to do that much at least. He'd be lost without her. She's some special lady."

Later Corky and I were offshore and onboard Corky's forty footer. The stern read: "SAUNDRA II." I kept myself busy surveying the waters around us.

Corky was pissed. "How come you've been checking into my background?"

"There's a guy over there with binoculars."

Corky brushed aside that as no threat. "He's just a fisherman. He's watching the seabirds feeding. That's where the big fish congregate to eat the little fish."

"Let me explain some things to you, pal. You want your wife whacked. Well, before we agree, I have to see how you fit into the deal. I have to look you over, understand you. We don't do a thing unless I know every why and wherefore along the way."

"What doesn't make sense--"

I interrupted him. "And we've decided. I'll do it."

Corky was taken aback. "Are you gonna guarantee my alibi?"

"That's the only way I work."

"When will she die?"

I had a cold smile. "It'll surprise even you."

Corky was jubilant. "Whoa boy! You sure had me going there!" He laughed with glee, and he sounded as raucous as a seagull. His voice made me wince.

"It'll cost you, too, pal. Fifty grand."

Corky made a razzberry. "Ten's all I got."

"You'll get the rest. And I get it all ahead of time."

"I'm not paying all of it beforehand."

"Afraid I'll skip on you?"

"Yes. Twenty-five grand."

"Fifty grand up front."

"I got twenty-five grand in cash." Corky hesitated. I could see his mind counting the coins in his pocket. "I'll go along with fifty grand if you get half before and the other half when everything stays buried." He added a caveat. "If she stays buried, I mean, if we hear nothing other than her death was accidental, or done by persons unknown, then I can give you the balance as soon as probate's over. That way you don't set me up. Or turn me in, either."

"How do I know you'll pay me?"

"You'll kill me if I don't."

"You got that right. But you pay the first half just before I go do it."

"Agreed. And the second twenty-five grand after probate. Not before." Corky hesitated. "What happens afterwards? How are you planning to get away?"

"That's my concern." I tightened up. "Then it's agreed?"

"It's a deal."

Corky and I shook hands on murder.

"How do you want her killed? Do you want her knifed? Poisoned? Shot? A pistol or a shotgun? Do you want her strangled, or maybe drowned in the ocean?"

Corky was tired. "I've had plenty of time and I've thought of a million ways to do it." He rubbed his forehead. "I just want her killed."

I couldn't resist teasing him. "I can put a bomb on this boat. A quarter pound of dynamite's about as big as a stick of butter. Goes by the gas tank. That would be enough. Or I can use more and what's left of the boat can fit in the trunk of your car."

"Not my boat, please. Besides, I don't want anybody killed but my wife."

"How do you want it to look? Accidental? Suicide? Do you want this to look like a robbery? Murder by persons unknown? Is there anybody you want to pin it on? Make it look like they did it?"

"I just want her dead. I don't want anybody getting framed for something they didn't do. I couldn't face myself in the mirror if somebody innocent gets busted for her death."

"Nobody's innocent any more."

"You wouldn't say that if you had grandchildren."

"You take drugs? How about your wife?"

Corky was annoyed. "No!"

"That takes care of overdoses. How strong is she? She is going to be an unwilling victim."

"She's a strong woman. She'll put up a pretty good fight."

"By the way, do you want her raped?"

"Are you serious?"

I shrugged. "It costs extra."

Corky guillotined twenty-five years of memories. "I'll leave it up to you." His conscience winced, but he rode over it. "The only thing that's important is my alibi is fool-proof. As long as I'm in the clear--"

"Where do you want her whacked? At home, maybe?"

"Maybe. It's private enough. The neighbors aren't very close. And she does spend a lot of time there alone."

"D'you mind if there's a lot of blood?"

"I don't care about the carpets!"

I stopped Corky from venting his anger. "Where do you want the body? Should I leave her where I kill her?"

Corky wrinkled his brow. "Oh god!"

I was fussy. "Do you want her buried, or do you want her coming in with the tide?"

"Leave her where you kill her. I'd like to have the body found as soon as possible and everything resolved as soon as possible."

Flea and I stood alongside a white plank fence looking over Corky's ranch. From the look of things, the Hawaiian had enough money to afford me killing his wife.

"Seen enough?" Flea asked.

I woke up. "Yeah."

We hiked back to the Mustang.

"How come you're doing this?" Flea asked.

"They call it fuck-you money," I said absently. "Once you got enough of it, you can walk away from anything."

We cruised down the Hana Highway. A pickup truck came up from behind, cut in front of us, barely missed us and shot off down the highway, then disappeared around the next curve.

I shook my head. "That asshole's got a lead foot. Brains to match, too."

Flea stared after the pickup. "That was Corky Collins. That's his truck that passed us."

I hit the gas pedal.

The pickup truck drove along the Hana Highway. We stayed a quarter mile behind him.

Corky's truck turned off the highway onto a red dirt road that led inland. He took the red dirt road deep into the rainforest. The sunlight disappeared in a canopy of leaves and branches. Then his truck disappeared around a series of curves.

I took the curves slowly, came around the last curve, and I found myself overlooking a church camp deep in a canyon. The church camp was mostly summer cottages and cabins for children. Tires on swings and outdoor barbecue grills. A softball diamond was beyond an empty swimming pool.

I stared out the windshield at the church camp.

"How come it's deserted?"

"They don't come until later in the summer."

I backed up, then hid the Mustang behind some large bushes. I grabbed a pair of binoculars from the travel bag in the back seat. Flea and I left the Mustang and disappeared into the rainforest. We found Corky had parked his pickup truck behind the last cabin.

A minute later we reached the cabin. A minute later we were watching Corky through the back window of the cabin. He was pacing up and down and chain-smoking. A pile of mattresses was stacked in one corner of the cabin. The rest of the cabin was empty.

Another car came down the red dirt road to the cabin where Corky waited. A woman--the attractive woman with the dead as a doornail eyes I had seen behind the cash register at the bowling alley--left her car, slamming the door behind her, and entered the cabin where Corky was waiting. There, she embraced and kissed Corky.

He pulled away, irritated with her.

Corky was angry. "Damn you, Debra!"

Debra got panicky. "What's wrong?

"I hate this! Damn you for coming up with this place!"

Debra tried consoling him. "Corky--"

"And damn me for going along with you!" he said half-heartily.

I was surprised, but Flea wasn't. "That's Mrs. Debra Lawson."

I asked, "Any relation to Ivy Lawson?"

"That's her stepmother."

Inside the cabin Corky set up a sleeping bag atop that stack of mattresses, while Debra Lawson shucked her clothes. She climbed inside the bag, while he stripped off his clothes. Then they were both naked, massaging each other.

I was amused and in no hurry to leave, but Flea was paranoid and wanted only to be gone. I told him to wait.

Corky Collins said, "I don't care any more how it's done. I don't want to know all the details. Why can't you just take care of everything?"

She kissed him tenderly. "Corky honey, all these details help cover for us. They make it easier and safer for us. And that's better protection for both of us." She kissed him again and massaged him under the covers. "Do you still like me doing this?"

Corky gave up. "Aw, honey ... "

They clutched together, and their body heat was enough for combustion. They started making brutally passionate love.

Flea turned away from the window, started to sip at a pint bottle of Irish whiskey. "She owns the bowling alley. She's the one's got me between a rock and a hard place with those checks."

I had some choice words for Flea.

I ended, "I thought it was Corky alone."

Flea shook his head. "She's his main squeeze. And almost nobody but me knows about it."

I was outraged. "You knew she was his main squeeze, and you didn't tell me?"

"I knew you'd find out," Flea said defensively.

I was spitting the words: "What bullshit are you giving me now!"

Flea started scrambling. "You don't do any deal unless you know the whole set-up, and knowing who Corky's been fucking is something you'd have to find out before you'd agree to any deal with him."

I gave up. "How'd you find them out?"

"They were smooching in the back booth in this bar I went into in Waikiki."

The outdoor marquee read: "CONGRATS, CORKY & SAUNDRA TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY." When I saw the sign, I just had to stop.

The Club Ilima was a cocktail lounge for locals, not tourists. Neon beer lights flashed on and off, on and off. The parking lot was large enough for thirty cars. Many loud drinkers were in the main lounge. There was much cigarette smoke and barroom noise.

The Club Ilima lobby looked like Davey Jones' locker. Female ship figureheads, life preservers and fishing nets, stuffed marlin from long-forgotten charter trips, a glass case with model clipper ships. There were yacht pennants around the gilt bar mirror.

I walked through and spotted Corky. He looked like he was looking for someone. Then, just two hours after his rendezvous with his mistress, Corky Collins spotted a middle-aged blonde chitchatting with friends at the end of the bar. He walked up behind her, embraced her, pecked a kiss on her cheek.

I pegged her for his wife and ankled closer to hear what I could.

I heard Corky as he spoke to his wife.

He said, "Saundra honey, how you doing? Can I get you another drink? Do you want another?"

Saundra looked at her husband as if he had too much to drink already.

At first I was amused by Corky's public demonstration of affection and by his wife's obvious reluctance. Then I got annoyed.

Corky moved through the crowd past me, his back to me. Feeling mischievous, I followed him across the lounge, then came up behind Corky, tapped the man on the shoulder, then let fly with a playful sucker punch to Corky's kidneys. Corky turned, found a sucker punch headed for his midriff. Caught off guard, he panicked and flinched.

I stayed my punch. "Corky, how ya doing?"

Corky was shaken. "God, don't do that ever again!"

I was smiling. "Is that the old lady? Helluva charmer you are. Just like Judas himself."

"Back off!" Corky growled. "What are you doing here?" he hissed.

"I saw your name in lights."

Corky got depressed. "I told them next month, and they thought I said next week."

"Let's go talk in private."

Corky held back. "The parking lot in five minutes."

I agreed. We walked away from each other.

I walked through the main lounge to the lobby. There I bumped into Ivy Lawson. Ivy's smile was only for me. Our lust drew us together and we kissed. Our kiss went on for a long while, like two magnets fusing together. Once we realized other people could be watching us, Ivy blushed and I got self-conscious. But no one seemed to have noticed us.

We moved into a darker corner of the lobby.

"Wanna go somewhere, sailor?" Ivy asked.

I noticed Corky leaving. "Give me twenty minutes, okay?"

Ivy only had eyes for me. "Sure, Michael."

I gave her some money. "Buy yourself a drink."

As Ivy disappeared down the hallway towards the ladies room, I followed Corky outside.

I caught up with Corky in the parking lot of the Club Ilima, a swatch of gravel along the shoreline. White thundering surf and the black night along the ocean were beyond us. Next stop, Tokyo.

I said, "When is Debra Lawson coming forward?"

"How the hell--?"

"She is your girlfriend, right?"

"Leave her out of this!"

I pushed harder. "I need to meet her face-to-face. She's your partner. I want to know how much she knows about all this. We get together soon, understand?

"No way."

"Does she know about it?"

"She knows I'm having it done."

"Did she ask you to do it for her?"

"No!"

"What does she get out of this? You and half of everything you own?"

"Yes."

"Love or money? Which one is it?"

Corky bit the bullet. "Both."

"When the shooting starts, you two gonna be holding hands together?"

"We don't hold hands in public."

"Never? Not even over in Waikiki? Or did you two meet in a church camp?"

Corky was furious. "You son-of-a-bitch!"

"Is she going to need an alibi, too? Something iron-clad and fool-proof?"

"You've made your point," Corky said stiffly.

I stepped back. "I'm forgetting my manners. Hey, we can postpone murdering your wife for a month, two months, five months, whatever. Don't you want to spend some time with your new old lady?"

Corky was outraged. He took a sudden step towards me, threw his chest out, made a fist as if he would strike me, but he hesitated, because he was afraid.

"Corky, once we get started, you won't be able to get together for a long time. At least until the body's cold and forgotten. And if your scheme goes bust, it's even a longer separation for you two lovebirds. You may never see it again, not at least before it's gone all gray and wrinkly with age, and it cracks like old leather because it hasn't been used in ages--"

"Keep getting on my case, okay," Corky snarled, "and maybe you'll find yourself out of a job!"

I smacked Corky with the back of my hand hard enough to send the older man to the sand. "It's my ass on the line if you or her screw up!" I growled.

Corky realized his mistake. "Okay, okay--"

"Nobody gets whacked until I'm satisfied! You got that?"

"Okay. Okay."

I could be very cold. "If it looks like a set-up, or a frame-up, or a screw-up, anything other than an easy hit ... " I waited a heartbeat. "I hit you."

Corky was stunned. "What?"

I made a menacing hiss. "And if something happens to me, the word goes down. Somebody will get paid to hit you. You and your girlfriend both."

"Let me explain--!"

But I was already stalking away, heading back to the Club Ilima.

Corky stayed behind, afraid.

Inside the club, I ordered a drink for myself. I turned and saw Ivy talking with Saundra Collins. The two women were staring at me.

Then I saw Saundra Collins shoot from her stool and come straight at me. She spoke loudly, very belligerently. "Mister Bishop, my name is Saundra Collins, and I represent a lot of the local property owners and residents. We bought this land and built homes here, and our families and our future is here, and none of us is going to be thrown off our land!"

Very quickly, everyone around us stopped whatever else they were doing to eavesdrop upon this one-sided argument.

I was confused. "Who wants to throw you off?"

"You and Uncle Sam." She turned to the rest of the drinkers and spoke loudly. "The Federal government is planning to get rid of all the East Maui people!"

I backed away from the battle. "Lady, I just got here ... "

Over her shoulder, I saw Corky came into the Club Ilima. He saw his wife's outburst, was horrified but powerless to move. I wanted to leave myself.

Saundra pressed her attack onward. "If you turn this coast into a national park, we'll get more tourists, more traffic, more congestion, and that means more crime and higher taxes and more problems."

I was desperate. "I have to leave now--"

Saundra spoke up very loudly. "Washington should just leave us alone!"

Ivy and I left in a hurry.

I started the Mustang. "Where did she come from?"

"Michael, I'm sorry," Ivy said. "That was my fault. I told her you worked for the National Park Service."

"You sicced her on me? Jesus, Ivy!"

"I know how I'll make it up to you." She snuggled up against me. "I'm going to bite your face, rip your hair, and fuck you as hard as I can."

I was surprised. "Oh! Okay."

I slipped the Mustang into gear.

I wasn't happy.

We were still awake at sunrise, naked in my bed at the Beach Chalet. She had asked for forgiveness, and I had really given it to her. But the hours had passed, and now I was as close as I can ever come to confession.

I told her, "I think about wretched places, about empty, dreary towns. About a job that at best is trash. A way of life without a wife, a family, close friends. I'm tired of always being alone."

Ivy was loving me. "I'll go anywhere with you." She kissed me. "I'll go where you go."

I wasn't surprised, but I knew not to show it.

I took a last toke, burned my fingertips, then flicked away the joint. The joint sailed through the dimly lit room, smacked against the window. Sparks ricocheted off, then disappeared. Outside the window was a full moon bathing in the sunrise.

Then we made love again.

On our way to breakfast we drove past the Paradise Bowling Alley.

I said, "Are you any relation to Debra Lawson?"

Ivy was deliberate. "She's my stepmother. She murdered my father."

"No wonder you no longer live at home," I joked.

Ivy sloughed it off. "Do you want to see the house I was born in, where I spent my life in, until the day he married her? It's her home now. That's what the lawyers tell me."

"When did your father die?"

"Two years ago. They say it was a car accident."

"And you say it was murder."

"She murdered him. His neck was slashed in the accident. He died from loss of blood. He bled to death."

"Your wicked stepmother. Got any stepsisters, Cinderella?"

Ivy was hurt by my teasing. "You're laughing at me."

I sobered. "Tell me about his death."

"His car was in a ditch along the side of the road. They said he had been drinking, that he fell asleep at the wheel and went off the road. But his throat was cut. You can check the death certificate."

"You must have been very close to him."

"We should have been. But when he came back from the sea, I was already four years old." She sounded wistful. "We never clicked." She frowned. "He died too soon. Before we had a chance to click."

"How did he meet her?"

"She was playing the dollar slots next to him in Las Vegas. Dad married her there. The same weekend. One of those twenty-four-hour wedding cottages. Eight months later she killed him."

"Married only eight months?"

"She only lived with him for three months of that. That last five months he wasn't even in the same house with her. They had an argument about money, he got mad and stomped out and wouldn't move back in." She hesitated. "The Tuesday before he died, he told me he wanted a divorce.

"Did he say why?"

"Because she only married him for his money."

I perked up. "Did your father have a lot?"

"Well, no. But he was in the Merchant Marines, and he made good enough money to buy her that bowling alley and let her live in the house I was born in."

I slumped. "Merchant Marines."

"Can you help me pin it on her? Look, I'll give you half of whatever I recover from his estate, and all you gotta do is help me prove she murdered my father."

"What about the cops? What do they say?"

Ivy gave up on getting any help from me.

Corky and I walked along the beach.

"When are you going to kill my wife?

"You fascinate me. You're willing to pay a stranger good money to whack somebody you've lived with for twenty-five years. Somebody who still trusts you after all those years." I furrowed my forehead at the conceit. "The betrayal ... "

"What of it? Haven't you ever betrayed anybody?"

I was taken aback. "Never been that close to anybody."

"Yeah, you gotta know them long enough so they can trust you well enough for you to betray them," Corky said.

But I didn't like thinking about myself.

"Why don't you just divorce her? All you gotta do is give up half of everything you got, and she walks with her life."

Corky looked away. He looked like he had bit down on the icy truth inside his heart for the first time. "I know that."

"Half of everything you got still leaves you with half of everything you got. Instead you take a chance on getting busted. You get busted, you don't get a dime."

"If I give her half, there wouldn't be enough for me. I want it all." He looked at me as if daring me to challenge him.

But I was grinning. "You are a nasty man."

Debra met up with us. She looked me up and down and didn't like what she saw. "You're the hitman," she said. The disgust dripped from every word.

"So you know about it," I said. I found that very interesting. "Are you against it?"

Debra was sassy and bold. "No." Again, a challenge.

"Just what do you get out of this? Him? Is that all? How are you going to react if, halfway through this scheme, he falls apart on you and turns you in?"

Debra flinched. "He won't."

"But what if? What would you do?"

Debra came right back at my jugular. "Where did you learn to kill? In the military?"

I said, "Watching TV. Same place everybody learns it."

She loathed me. "How many people have you killed?"

"How about you? How many have you killed? Corky's wife ... how many does she make for you?"

"Tell him to fuck off, Corky!"

Caught between us, Corky found speech impossible.

I was disgusted. "You make a great pair. Which one of you will crumble first?"

"Neither of us will," Debra vowed.

"I don't do it if I think either of you will crumble," I pledged.

"How do I know you're not a cop?" Debra snapped.

I was fed up. "You make it easy." I turned to Corky. "That grand is mine, pal. You don't get a dime back." I walked away.

Corky came after me. "Wait!"

"Let him go, Corky!" Debra called.

I walked away from them. In my mind I had already erased the hit. I was busy thinking how palm trees looked better in Hawaii than in Las Vegas. That discovery surprised me. I looked out at the waves and wondered how much money it would cost to live in Paradise for the rest of my days. There were other islands, too. I wondered ...

Corky grabbed my arm and stopped me. "We need you, please!"

Debra was alongside. She was brutally pragmatic. "Let's talk about killing his wife," she said.

"What do you want done?" I asked her.

"Don't you have any ideas of your own?" she asked.

"Fake a traffic accident," I said. "A routine traffic accident out along the Hana Highway."

"You could cut her brake line," Corky said.

I shook my head. "First thing they check." Thoughtfully, "I can remove one of her motor mounts."

Corky was surprised. "You think that works?"

Debra interrupted us. "What are you talking about?"

"Inside your car," I told Debra, "your engine's held in a metal cradle. When a motor mount goes, your engine twists sharply from the torque. The linkage from the carb gets twisted, too, wrenched out of shape. Your gas pedal goes straight to the floorboards, and your engine's suddenly going full throttle. If you're in gear at the time, you're suddenly moving like a bat outa hell!"

She could visualize that. "I like that, Cork!"

I had a caveat. "That's okay on the freeway, but on something like the Hana Highway, with all its twists and turns and switchbacks, you're out of control at high speed."

Corky scoffed at that. "And all she's gotta do is turn off the ignition and coast to a stop."

I turned to Corky. "Have you ever lost a motor mount? Would you--instantly--know what to do? How many motor mounts has your wife lost?"

Corky gave up. "What if she doesn't die immediately?"

"She'll die fast," I promised.

Debra faced me. "Make it look like an accident," she said, "but make sure she's dead."

I was already grinning. "She'll be dead enough even for you."

Debra smirked back. "You think you're something special, don't you?"

I stood up to Debra. "Are you going to be with Corky when the shooting starts?"

Debra was somber. "That may be too much to ask for."

"I know how we can be together," Corky told her. "I'll be having a drink at the bar. You'll be working behind the bar, pouring the drinks. Sure. That's a legitimate excuse for us to be together."

Debra blinked at that logic. But before she could frame any answer, she heard my laughter mocking them.

Ollie Salazar and I sat in the bank president's office.

He was trying hard to be blank-faced. "Well, yes, Mrs. Debra Lawson was married, but her husband died suddenly two years ago. They'd only been married a short time. There was some talk--still is, in fact--that his death was not ... accidental, which, of course, it was--"

"How did he die?"

"Auto accident. His was the only vehicle involved, actually. He'd been drinking, it seems, and the car slid through a turn and flipped over into a ditch. Could've happened to anyone."

"How much money was involved?"

"More than I expected from a sailor," Ollie said incautiously.

Then I went to the County Coroner's Office. I talked with Timothy, a beautiful young man who worked there. Timothy had gone out of his way to wait on me.

Timothy had a syrupy voice. "My name is Timothy. How can I help you?"

I ignored Timothy's syrupy manner. "I'd like to see the death certificate and the coroner's report in the death of Roscoe Lawson." I read my notes. "April 14th--"

Timothy already knew. "Two years ago."

He turned on his heels and went off for the file. A moment later he returned with a file in his hand. I took it, but didn't immediately open it.

"You knew right where it was," I said.

"His daughter keeps coming in here, having people look it over."

"And what do they find?

Timothy shrugged. "A drunk who fell asleep at the wheel. His car was found upside down in an irrigation ditch beyond the third bend past the sixth bridge on the Hana Highway."

I still hadn't opened the file. "Cause of death?"

"Respiratory failure due to aspiration of blood and fracture of the larynx due to the auto accident."

"Was his throat cut?"

Timothy shook his head. "It was smashed, not slashed. The pathologist said his jaw was broken twice. His tongue clogged his air passage."

"How bad was he boozed?"

"His blood alcohol was point-forty-two."

I was surprised. "The boy was pickled!"

Timothy grew confidential. "That isn't an unusually high count. Most Medical Examiners will tell you winos in doorways need a point-three-five or a point four-oh just to feel good." He shrugged. "You get a DB with a history of heavy drinking, somebody who can hold his liquor--. The rest is natural causes. If there had been foul play, don't you think the sheriff himself would have pulled out all the stops to find his murderer?"

I asked why.

"Roscoe Lawson was his brother."

I marveled at that. "So Ivy Lawson's the sheriff's niece? And Debra Lawson's his sister-in-law?"

Timothy kept nodding.

"One last thing," I asked. "Whatever happened to Roscoe Lawson's body?"

"It was cremated," Timothy said.

Stu Philips shook his head. "That lil' devil! She shouldn't say the things she does. Her claims are groundless, and her accusations are inaccurate and unjustified. Don't feel bad personally, Mister Bishop, but this investigation of yours is a waste of my taxpayer's money."

I stopped him. "This is not an official visit from the Federal Government."

"I understand. I feel for her, too. I took those accident reports and went over to the Sheriff's Office. We spent hours pouring over those pictures." He gestured behind him. "I have them in a drawer back there, and I can let you look at them. There was nothing there anywhere."

"Roscoe Lawson was a sailor in the Merchant Marine, right?"

"He was a cook," Stu clarified.

"How large was the insurance settlement?"

"Roscoe Lawson was a very frugal man--"

I interrupted. "And the widow got it all."

"The widow is supposed to get it all. That's how the will read. It's a shame Ivy doesn't get to share in the settlement, but it does happen all the time."

"And Debra Lawson bought the Paradise Bowling Lanes."

"She made a wise investment. She started her own business. She provides jobs in the community and she pays her taxes. It gives her a future to build upon and it keeps her busy today."

"She's new to Hawaii, right?"

"Three, four years. Look, Debra Lawson's a welcome part of the islands. She's warm, friendly and generous. She supports a softball team. She's even involved in local politics."

I perked up. "She's political?"

"She's been involved with Saundra Collins for several months now. They're both active in that campaign to recall the county sheriff."

"Her brother-in-law?"

"Her ex-brother-in-law. See, he's in favor of more hotels along the Kaanapali coast, and she's not."

"What kind of man is the sheriff? What kind of sheriff is he?"

Stu considered the question carefully. "Walter Lawson is progressive. Intelligent. Hard-working. He gets solid convictions, but he's also good behind the desk. The island's lucky to have him."

I found this all so interesting.

"Roscoe Lawson?" the shop foreman at Dougan's Wreckers Garage said. "Yeah, I remember his car. Yeah, there was nothing wrong with it." He shrugged. "I'll tell you what happened. A drunk rolled it over."

"Thanks," I said.

I found Flea laying about his office with a pint of Irish whiskey.

"You got it all solved?" Flea asked.

I said I did. "Corky's girl friend was married to the sheriff's brother. He died fishy and now they don't want the sheriff questioning the second kill."

Flea snickered into his whiskey.

I took away his bottle. "No more, Flea, until it's over."

Debra Lawson entered the bar at the bowling alley and found me nursing a beer.

I noticed her. "How ya doing, Mrs. Lawson?"

Debra was filled with cold fury. "What are you doing here!"

I was pensive. "D'you think Ol' Corky's got any misgivings about this scheme of his?"

"None at all," she snapped.

"I wonder if he's got any good memories of that woman. Probably not. She don't mean enough to him to divorce her and let her live." I noticed Debra. "You two planning marriage?"

Debra was cautious. "Yes. Afterwards."

"Think he'll ever divorce you?" I asked.

Debra tried to smack my face. I caught her hand in mid-swing and bent it back without effort. When I released her, she sullenly rubbed her wrist.

"Yeah, I guess not," I mused. "He's not the divorcing kind. But then neither are you. I wonder when you two are gonna stop trusting each other."

"We won't."

"Your husband died in an auto accident? Two years ago?"

Debra gritted down. "I don't see--" Exasperated: "Yes."

"Did Corky kill him for you?" I asked.

Debra was outraged. "Ask him yourself!" She turned, called to Corky. "Corky!"

Corky entered the lounge. He acted like the pit of his stomach dropped a thousand feet seeing us together. Walking up to us must have been like walking those last few yards to the Death Chamber.

He said, "You two shouldn't come out in the open together like this."

"Why didn't you tell me your girl friend is the sheriff's sister-in-law?" I asked.

"She isn't any more," Corky said.

"Did you kill her husband? Is that why you want me to kill your wife? Because the sheriff thinks there something suspicious about his brother's death that might tie the two of you together?"

Corky looked guilty. "His death was accidental. Even the county coroner's report shows that."

"How much did that cost you?"

Debra was smug. "We didn't kill him."

I disagreed. "You did it. And somehow you got away with it. Lady, you musta figured you couldn't get away with it twice. So, now you both need perfect alibis."

Debra could not have been angrier. "Okay. Forget it. We'll do it ourselves."

"No, you won't," I said.

"You're fired!" Debra insisted.

I ignored her. "See, Corky, if you do waste the old lady yourselves, the word goes out about how you both came looking for somebody to ice her. And if anything happens to her, we'll make sure the cops nail you both for it."

"Blackmail!" Debra called it.

I left my bar stool. "I ain't getting paid enough to take the rap for you." I pocketed my money from the bar counter. "Ciao, babes."

Ivy worked her full shift. She found me parked outside the Pier Inn when she got off work. She went over to my Mustang and leaned inside my window, letting me get a clear glimpse of her cleavage. She had nice breasts.

"Hey, sailor, you wanna party?" Ivy joked.

But I got sour with anger. "Get in!" I barked.

Surprised by my ferocity, Ivy got into my rental.

I was pissed. "Don't ever talk like that again!" Then, calming down: "It's not you and it's not me." Then, filled with a sudden remorse, I added, "That's not the way I want us to be." I slammed into first gear and peeled rubber away from the restaurant.

I could see Ivy was astonished. He cares about us!

More than G-forces from the Mustang kept her off-balance.

That night as she lay naked atop me and the covers, while I was cuddling her breasts, nuzzling her earlobes, I guess Ivy found herself thrilled by my proposal, but also puzzled by it.

She said, "You want me to go with you?"

"Yeah," I said.

She pushed me away from her ear. "How come?"

I didn't know what to tell her. I kept staring at the cottage cheese ceiling of the motel and couldn't add any more to what I was asking of her. How could I tell her how much I hated the hollowness I was becoming from my job? How could I tell her she was a rope tossed to a man swept up in a flash flood? Better I start anew, without any chains to my past.

Ivy didn't know what to think. "No guy ever said to me he wanted to take me away from here." She tried joking. "A guy'll say anything to get whatever he wants."

"You're already sleeping with me," I retorted.

Ivy was confused. "You trying to live with me, Michael?"

"Yeah."

"Why?"

Then she acted like I was ignoring her. That she wasn't here. That I had run out of words at such a special moment like this really pissed her off.

She shook me angrily. "Why!" She shoved harder. "Damn you! Why!" She had to know.

"I love you."

Ivy stared at me, and I stared back.

I was thoughtful, still mulling over my runaway words.

She said, "Jesus Christ Almighty!"

I said, "Are you saying no, or do you need more time to think about it? We got only one or two more days."

Ivy was both astonished and desperate. "What am I supposed to think now? How could you--demand--so much after such a short time together? How could you be so sure after such a short time together?"

I didn't know. "I just do."

"No shit?"

"No shit," I said. "Do you want the lights on or off?"

"Turn them off," Ivy said. "Let's celebrate."

The lights in my room went off.

Morning brought a blood-red sunrise over Maui. In the west a full moon was falling slowly into the sea. Ivy and I were finished with sex. Both of us were exhausted. Ivy took the nearest pillow and used it as a sponge to soak the sweat off her naked chest.

I looked over. "Finally-- Finally-- Have you had enough?

Ivy was exhausted. "Aw, god--. Yeah."

I stroked her thigh, then kissed it.

But then I got up and got out of bed.

Ivy almost panicked at the suddenness of my move.

"Where are you going?"

"The shower."

Ivy calmed. "Don't take too long."

An hour later I walked with Saundra Collins on the beach and told her, "A national park is just talk at this stage. There'll be a million public hearings before any decision will ever get contemplated."

"Because Smokey the Bear hates getting sued," Saundra said, grinning.

"A national park might be one alternative to more hotels."

Saundra picked up a seashell, rinsed it in the surf, then gave it to me. "A souvenir of Hawaii."

"Thanks. You're a beachcomber."

Saundra was gracious. "Thank you. That's just about the nicest thing anyone's said about me in years."

"D'you know the names of everything that washes up on the beach?"

Saundra laughed. "Not all of them, no. But most of them. Crazy, right?"

I didn't understand. "Why should that be crazy?"

Saundra focused on me. "Do you know the price of gold these days?" She indicated the seashell. "Well, what's the price of a seashell these days? When people lose their values, all they're left with is greed." She gestured at the whole wide world. "They think I'm crazy. I know they're crazy."

"That's the way you look at it."

"I won't look at it any other way. When I was growing up, my father used to tell people he didn't want to be the richest man in the cemetery."

"So what is important to you?"

"Living a good life."

"Have you had a good life so far?"

Saundra considered my question seriously. "I've been very lucky."

"Any family?"

Saundra nodded. "Oh, there's my husband and me. Our two boys are both grown men and moved away. A grandson and another one on the way--"

"What's your husband like?"

Saundra spoke carefully. "He's a good man. We've been married twenty-five years next month."

"And you still love him?"

"Oh yes. Very much."

I ate lunch in the Pier Inn and read a newspaper as I ate. Ivy came and joined me. Her eyes were wide and she seemed solemn. She had a brown paper bag in one hand.

"This morning, when you went in to take a shower, I needed a cigarette."

I said, "Yeah?"

"Your suitcase was opened." She opened the brown paper bag and showed me my Browning nine-millimeter. "I found your gun," she said.

"Thank you," I said. Casually I took the Browning from her and slipped it into my jacket pocket. I resumed reading and eating. But I wasn't reading anything and I wasn't tasting anything I was chewing. I may have looked calm and collected, but my mind was a roller coaster of conflicting emotions.

Ivy said, "After you dropped me off at my apartment, I followed you. With all the tourist traffic, staying close enough behind you not to lose you and far enough away not to be seen was easy."

I cursed myself for thinking I was in paradise.

"You stopped outside the Collins' processing plant. I saw you and Saundra Collins talking together on the docks. Then I watched you two walk away from the processing plant towards the beach, still talking together."

"We were talking about the national park."

She tapped the paper bag that held my gun. "You said National Park Service," Ivy said. "You said Smokey the Bear."

"People who cause forest fires oughta be shot."

Ivy snorted her disbelief and contempt for my answer. "Who are you?"

"Sometimes I get scared at night in a strange town. That's why I carry a gun."

"Then how do you know Flea Nichols?"

I had wary eyes. "The game's up?"

"Who are you?" Ivy insisted.

Go for it, I thought. See if you get away with it.

"I'm a collector of last resort," I explained. "I collect gambling debts. Football pools, mostly, but whatever else, too. A guy makes a bet in a bar about a football game, his team doesn't win, he has to pay off."

"He pays you?"

"I get twenty-five percent of whatever I collect."

"What about Corky Collins?"

"I'm just here to collect what he owes another guy."

"How come he hasn't paid you yet?"

I could be magnanimous. "He needs a couple days to get it together."

"Are you going to beat him up if he doesn't?"

"I don't beat people up. People pay off their gambling debts. It's a matter of pride. The principle of the thing."

"What if Corky doesn't pay you?"

"He'll pay me," I said.

Ivy was dubious. "Then what's the gun for?"

"I don't want to be robbed."

"What!"

"The money's not mine. If I'm robbed, I have to pay it back."

She stared into my eyes to read my soul.

"See, that's why I want us to start my life over. I don't want to do this shit no more. That's why I want us to work so well together."

She wasn't sure if she should be skeptical or not.

"If you think I'm lying, Ivy, there's no reason for us to stay together."

She loved me. She hugged me with all her heart and soul.

Me, I kept worrying.

Corky banged on the door like a deranged husband. When I let him in my room, he was livid with rage.

"What were you doing with my wife on the beach this morning?"

I amused. "Do I tell you how to do your job? Do I bother you when you're working?"

"You'll jeopardize everything!"

I stopped him. "It can go down tonight, if you're ready." Smiling: "It'll look like a robbery, a burglary gone bad. And you'll be down at the bowling alley having a beer."

"With Debra?"

I shrugged. "Sure. Why not?" I had a sudden thought and stopped. "Are you both planning to go somewhere together afterwards? Las Vegas or Acapulco or Paris? Maybe meet there, having come separate ways, under assumed names, and then celebrate together?"

Corky's guilty expression was enough to convict him.

I was ice-cold. "Don't."

Corky swallowed hard. "What do you want me to do tonight?"

An hour before twilight I stood on a deserted beach. I held my Browning like a crucifix. Flea was on the ridge above the beach with a pile of empty soda cans. I had my back to him.

I spoke to myself: "A professional calls his shots and then makes them." Then, calling to Flea: "Now!"

Flea threw an empty can down the rocky slope towards the beach.

I heard the clattering can, spun and fired once from the hip. The tin can was hit by my bullet, which sent the can flying.

"The longer I'm here," I said to myself, "the harder a clean hit becomes."

I turned my back and waited for Flea to throw the next tin can.

When it came clattering down the rocky slope, I fired again.

The tin can blew apart.

"And then there's Ivy," I said, and turned my back.

When Flea threw the next can down the rocky slope towards the beach, I watched the clattering can and fired my pistol from the waist. I shattered the can.

"I'll call her," I said, "tell her, gotta go, take care of yourself."

When Flea threw the last can down towards the beach, I heard the clattering can, spun around, aimed and fired. The can went flying, then landed among the other tin cans.

"That's the last one!" Flea called down.

I reloaded, while Flea came scrambling down the slope. Flea looked over the tin cans.

Why say anything? Just walk away and never come back.

Awed and frightened, Flea approached me. "You never missed!" he said. He shut up, seeing the frustration in my eyes. He thought it was anger.

Night falls fast in the tropics.

I parked in front of the processing plant. I was behind the wheel, and Flea sat beside me.

"Wait in the Mustang," I told Flea. "If we get company, use the horn until I tell you to stop. You do not leave without me."

When Flea nodded his head, I left the Mustang, taking the car keys with me.

I came up behind Debra and Corky as they walked through the deserted, dimly lit plant. They talked, not knowing I was listening.

"Still want to go through with it?" Debra asked.

Corky was paranoid. "Why keep on hassling me?"

"This is your last chance to bail out," Debra said.

Corky was determined. "I want her dead."

Debra kissed his cheek. "My stallion!"

Corky was scowling. Short-tempered from the stress, he had acquired a nervous twitch in one eye. He was impatient with her. "No more, Debra!" Softer: "Not till this is over."

Debra showed Corky the gun in her shoulder bag.

"What's that for?" Corky asked.

Debra grew bold. "I'm not afraid of his blackmail!"

Corky freaked out. "Don't be an idiot, Debra! Put it away!"

I moved back into the shadows and waited.

I met them on the loading docks. Corky handed over a manila envelope and a set of housekeys. She kept her arms crossed over her chest.

"It's all there," Corky told me. "Housekeys, the floor plan of my house, Flea's checks."

I looked up. "The money?"

Corky passed over the money.

I counted it, then put it with the housekeys and the floor plan and handed it all back to Corky. I pulled my gun, checked it was loaded, then aimed it at them.

"The deal's off," I said.

"What!" Corky cried.

"What are you--!" Debra cried.

I cut her off. "I'm fed up with both of you. I'm not going to kill her. She's easily worth more than the two of you combined. You two are dirty dogs, and you ought to be put to sleep. You are weasels ... " My laughter mocked them. "You even fuck like weasels! I've seen you!"

Debra was outraged. "What are you doing jerking us around like this!"

Corky was numb. "I don't get it."

"The hit's off," I told them. "You get a divorce, and she lives. Anything other than that, the both of you end up in an oil drum at the bottom of the deep blue sea."

A Mustang horn sounded again and again and--

Debra was shrewish and shrill. "You can't trust these people, Corky! I told you!" she cried. She was outraged and furious. She pulled out her gun and shot at me, completely missing me.

I shot Debra. Her face exploded, and she was thrown back, already dead.

Corky was too horrified to move.

I shifted my gun onto Corky, to keep him from trying anything rash. But Corky was trembling with absolute fear.

Somebody stood behind and to the right of me, at the edge of the shadows. Having just witnessed me shooting Debra Lawson, and seeing that I now had my gun aimed at Corky Collins, that somebody lifted a deer rifle and shot me.

I was struck below the left shoulder. As I fell, I spun around and returned fire automatically at whoever had just wounded me. I landed on one knee, but I could still shoot.

I shot that somebody in the chest. The force of my bullets threw her backwards, falling dead. Blood soaked her blouse. When I saw I had killed Saundra, I was anguished.

In shock, Corky, seeing both his wife and his mistress struck dead, gave up all hope and sank to the floor.

I could hear police sirens approaching.

I struggled to my feet. Time to leave.

Behind me, Corky was on his knees, in shock and shaking, sobbing.

I stepped out on the loading docks. With headlights and police flashers flashing, the sheriff's patrol car and two other police units screeched to a halt, surrounding the Mustang. Flea had deserted the Mustang; he was nowhere in sight. The sheriff and two young deputies jumped from their patrol cars, their weapons drawn.

I saw Ivy racing towards me. She was backlit by police flashers and headlights. Then Ivy ran in front of the patrol cars towards the processing plant's doors. "Mrs. Collins!" she screamed.

Ivy saw me bloody and with a gun in my hand. Terrified, she came to a sudden stop. She stood between me and the deputies. The deputies couldn't see me.

Ivy screamed, "Michael!"

The sheriff saw Ivy confronted by a bloodied gunman. Fearing for her life, he yelled: "Ivy! Get away from there!"

Two deputies opened fire on me.

Bullets flew past Ivy.

I was desperate. I shouted: "Ivy, get down!"

Ivy screamed and cringed, too panicked to move.

I took aim and shot Ivy.

I hit her just below the shoulder. The bullet knocked her feet out from under her, pitching her over.

Anguished, I watched her drop.

Sheriff Lawson saw Ivy hit, and fired several times at me. The deputies shot at me.

I was struck in the right thigh by the first bullet, inches from my groin, then had my right eye socket pierced by the second shoot. The third and fourth shots struck my chest and my left thigh. I fell--

Sheriff Lawson was already racing to Ivy's side. She was in terrible pain, weeping and wailing, and he cradled her.

Later the sheriff watched the county ambulance that carried his niece from the Collins' processing plant. Already there were many other deputies present, as well as police support teams. Special night lights were being erected, and traffic was slowing from all the gawkers.

A deputy approached with a handcuffed Flea. "He wants to turn state's evidence," the deputy said.

Flea was dejected.

Sheriff Lawson and the deputy walked through the plant and approached Corky Collins. The man sat on the ground two feet from his wife's outstretched arm and stared blankly at them.

"Corky Collins? You're under arrest for murder."

The sheriff snapped handcuffs on Corky Collins.

"My life is ruined," Corky said.

The next morning Sheriff Lawson visited his bandaged niece at Maui General Hospital. Ivy was propped up in a bed. She looked drained and puffy, as if crying, though she was not crying now. Her arm was in a sling.

The sheriff was apologetic and soft-spoken. "He's dead, Ivy."

"Uncle Walter--"

"He killed Saundra Collins."

Ivy was horrified. "Oh God no!"

"Corky and Debra paid him to kill her. Afterwards they were going to run off together ... He killed Debra, too." He added wryly, "The killers had a falling-out."

Ivy was heart-broken. "He tried to kill me, too. You saved my life."

The sheriff found the truth difficult to say. "Honey, he was a professional. His kind don't miss. He gave you your life. He must've loved you very much."

Ivy wailed her sorrow. Uncle Walter took her in his arms and tried to comfort her. She wept.