Photo Finish – Chapter 1
Trouble in paradise never looked so good...
I hope you enjoy Chapter 1 of Photo Finish. Click the tabs or the arrows to navigate.
Harris Galvin gave me what the Hawaiians call “chicken skin” the moment I met her. The goosebumps this new girl in paradise brought on were seriously scary. Harris might be drop-dead gorgeous, but she had an aura about her—something as old as the islands themselves. Put the emphasis on the drop-dead part and make that aura what the locals call malu make, which is pronounced mah-loo mah-kay, and roughly translates to “shadow of death,” and you had Harris, an irresistible package that said, “big trouble coming—soon.”
My name is McKenna. I don’t usually act this way. Spooky music, getting all weird on people—that’s more wacko than me. I’m just—hell—I’m just sitting on my lanai half-drunk and muttering Hawaiian death phrases about a woman I barely know because she and my best friend are missing.
Death phrases or not, nobody was going to lock me away unless I started ranting down on Waikiki in front of the big hotels. That wasn’t likely since I had no overpowering urge to give up my job managing the Honolulu Sunsetter, a sweet little apartment manager’s deal that gets me free rent and a great view. So no matter how crazy this whole Harris thing made me, I had to plug along. Fact is, I’m a work in progress. Maybe progress isn’t exactly the right word, I’d gone from hotshot bank skip tracer to grumpy landlord faster than you could say, “The rent’s due.”
Anyway, while the owners of this little moneymaker did their rich-people things, my job entailed judging Harris’s suitability as a tenant, which I’d done. Despite her little black-cloud aura, Harris seemed to have her life together. She’d passed all my usual sophisticated landlord checks like not bitching about the money and not being stoned. She even had twenty-five grand in the bank and called me “Honey.” My other research, a couple of quick database checks, had turned up nothing. So I figured, “What the hell?” When she moved in, I got two months’ rent and a deposit. And a hug that was two inches too close and lasted three seconds too long to be considered just friendly.
At five-foot six, Harris was lithe and stood just a few inches shorter than me despite my tendency to slouch. She’d sounded proud when she’d handed me a letter from National Geographic and said, “I’m a photographer and have a job lined up.”
Her blue eyes reminded me of the early-morning sea—mine were more like the brown of a Malibu mud slide. She struck me as more Cosmo model than nature photographer, but what did I know?
My brain must have still been working on that hug when I’d opened my big mouth. “Hmmpf. Didn’t realize that there were any unphotographed parts left on Oahu.”
“Honey, I’m gonna do it like it’s never been done before. My article’s gonna be called Spectacular Island Waterfall Day Trips. It’ll cover waterfalls throughout the islands. Perspectives nobody’s seen before. The tricky one’s going to be Sacred Falls.”
“Tricky? More like impossible.”
“I know, the rock slide in ‘99. Killed eight hikers, yada, yada.”
“Yada, yada? You can’t get in there. Not legally, anyway.”
“My employer has a lot of pull. I’ve already talked to State Parks. Got the email approval yesterday. Now that I have an address, the letter should arrive any day.”
So, yeah, she’d impressed me. Hot. Organized. I might have proposed on the spot if she hadn’t kept jabbering about fame and fortune, her path to the big time. Talk about yada, yada. Sheesh, give it a rest. Given her business plan—act dangerously, get paid handsomely—I probably should’ve gotten three months’ rent. Who in their right mind went off on a damned-fool photo safari in the mountains and expected to get paid for it? Probably somebody who didn’t know you couldn’t make a living that way. Count me out, I’m too smart for that.
But now, it was 7:08 PM and the sun hung at half mast on the horizon and they hadn’t returned from that photo safari and, damn, I was getting worried. A picture of little Harris parts scattered over the mountainside somewhere on the north end of Oahu flashed in my mind.
Goose flesh tickled my skin again. I muttered, “Dat wahine, she kine chicken skin.” Kine is what the locals call a placeholder word. Hawaiians use it to mean almost anything. It can mean “a lot,” “a little,” “I don’t know,” “I forgot” or whatever else the speaker wants it to mean. In this case, it meant that, despite her good traits, maybe Harris had really bad karma, too.
The Sunsetter apartments border the ocean on Kalakaua Ave. With Diamond Head on the east, Honolulu on the west, and the Pacific smack dab in front, they’re not hard to rent despite the utilitarian white paint and island-standard musty carpets. True, a good carpenter could shoehorn one of these units into the owner’s closet, but with studios and one or two bedrooms to choose from, people who had money and were so inclined could live close to the water. They’re well kept, thanks to yours truly, and this little investment let my bosses go off and sip expensive drinks on about any beach in the world while I sat here and managed their little Honolulu gold mine, a task I performed admirably. I’m definitely a go-getter—after midmorning. And you can’t count my afternoon nap. Or when I might worry about other people’s karma.
In any case, back to Harris. Talk about energy. And how that girl had oozed confidence. Sheesh.
“I’ve got the drive. I’ve got the ambition. My photos are better than the others, that’s why I got this gig.”
“Got your eye on the big prize, huh?”
“You bet, honey. Just watch me.”
Well, I could certainly do that. “Maybe you are better, maybe I’m wrong. But there’s a lot
of Ansel Adams wannabes out there.”
“Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing.”
I remembered thinking that she had a nice chunk of change in the bank, a great apartment, and knew where she wanted to go in life. As long as she paid her rent and didn’t get herself killed—ah, hell. If she did, she’d be visiting her kupuna, that’s her ancestors for you mainlanders.
Under my breath, I whispered, “Don’t let me be right.”
Deep down I liked this gutsy newcomer. Even without the hugs, her friendliness just made you want to, well, like her. Still, as her landlord, I had to hope she didn’t kick the bucket before I could cash her check. I snickered. Or get a few more of those hugs.
Black cloud or not, Legs, oops—yeah, that’s how I thought of her, was pretty smart. She’d persuaded me to get her a guide for her little photo safari—not something most people could accomplish, then made me feel good about it by pulling me so close I almost forgot my age. At 62, I’m old enough to be her father, which is a depressing thought that just makes me want to get drunk and listen to Jimmy Buffett all afternoon. Just the same, I’d made a commitment, so I’d called up my only friend in the islands, Alexander.
Alexander’s lived here all his life and he’s like an umbrella drink; lots of Hawaiian, two parts haole, a shot of Chinese and a dash of Japanese. The haole part is pronounced “how-lee” and just means that a couple of the pretty Hawaiian girls who were his grandmothers jumped the racial barrier and married white people, probably sailors from the mainland. A couple of his other kupuna became enamored with Asian members of the opposite sex and so Alexander’s was a very common mix here in the islands. In any case, Alexander knows almost every inch of Oahu, from the mountains to the sea, or mauka to makai, as we say here. He’s got more aunties, uncles, and cousins than I can count, and if you toss in the other people he knows, they could probably fill Aloha Stadium. It was now 7:21 PM and red tinges on the horizon had grown bright and fiery. The ocean was turning pink and gray.
I took another sip as the last of the sun’s fire dropped below the horizon. This part of the day, the time when the struggle between daytime and night reached its climax, had become my favorite. My ten-by-twelve lanai with its four-seater patio set and chaise lounge gave me an oil- painting view of the sunset.
An electronic version of Margaritaville began to play on my cell phone, breaking the spell. I checked Caller ID. Shit. Alexander’s wife. Maybe I should switch to tequila. “Hi, Kira.”
“Where’s Alexander? You set him up this job, yah?”
“I’m getting worried, myself.”
“You get him in trouble, McKenna, I gonna come after you.”
And I knew she would. “I thought they’d be back hours ago—”
“Don’t make excuses, you. This not just another case of you wandering fingers.” Kira called me a letch once just because I got my hand too close to her ass. I tried to explain that I was old and deserved a little leeway, but that response earned me a bruise on my arm that hung around for weeks. “Uh, about that, I really do apologize—again.” For about the tenth time. “I’ll send him home as soon as he shows up.”
“You keep him. That teach him a good lesson.”
Kira hung up and left me listening to a dial tone. My heart pounded in my chest; my palms felt sweaty. Confrontations just weren’t my thing. It was definitely time for another round. 7:42. Not good. I slumped back into my chair.
Gentle trade winds brushed across my face, whispering their island secrets. The sky grew darker, dimming to pinkish grays and purples. White lights from a yacht streamed across the ocean on the distant horizon. The crazy surfers were long gone, having done their thing from sunup to sundown. I call them crazy because, in addition to the obvious issues about fair-skinned people getting fried in the sun, the idea of flopping around in the water close to a wave the size of a bus scares the crap out of me. I’ll stick to my little lanai and sunset view, thank you very much. Now, it was just the ocean—the colors, the sounds, the smells. The here, the now. Locals say that people come to the islands to run away. Maybe they’re right.
My eyelids grew heavy as the trades worked their magic. I downed a mouthful of my vino du jour, a tasty, cheap-but-effective Pinot Noir I’d found on sale at the market, then crossed my arms over my chest and settled down into the chair. I hadn’t always been grumpy. Chasing skips had been a rush. I’d found a lot of people who didn’t want to be found. My relationship with Jenny and her son had been—who was I kidding, that’s when my life imploded. As I nodded off, a familiar image flashed in my mind—me, alone in the middle of Waikiki Beach, a “Do Not Disturb” sign hung around my neck.
A knock on the front door startled me so much I damn near fell out of my chair. It took me a minute to get on my feet. I felt like a human pretzel until about halfway to the door. That’s when I realized I’d taken the long route. My little end unit has a lanai that’s just ten feet from the walkway to the central courtyard, which would have been a much easier route. I checked the little wall clock in the dining room on my way to the door. It was after 9:00 PM. Who the hell would be coming by now? I could only think of two possibilities. It could either be Alexander and Legs, or the cops coming to confirm my fears.
“Not the cops. Please.” I blinked in a weak attempt to clear my head. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Alexander. Open up, McKenna.”
Oh, good. They were back and had stopped by to tell me about the day. “Hang on, I’ll be
“Hurry up, I had to park on the back end of the lot and my knee’s killing me. I can’t hold her up much longer.”
Uh-oh. Hold her up? I swung the door open, then stared at what looked like a couple of massacre-movie stunt doubles. “What the hell happened to you two?”
Alexander had bruises everywhere I could see. A cut near his right eye had bled and caked the side of his face like war paint. And Harris, well, looking at Harris broke my heart. I stepped aside to let Alexander assist her into the room.
As the two hobbled past me, Harris smiled and gave me a weak half-drunk wave. “Hi, hon.”
Alexander shook his head. “She been calling me that all day, brah. Don’t get your hopes up.”
The evening trades hadn’t yet cooled the room, and the air felt heavy. “She’ll do better outside.”
“We were outside all day.”
“Whatever. Put her on the chaise out there where she can rest.”
Alexander made his way past my little glass-topped, wicker dining table and TV to the lanai, lowered Harris onto the chaise lounge and occupied the chair I’d vacated. I tried to nonchalantly move my wine glass, but he just rolled his eyes.
“Crap, I’ve got to pee.” I hobbled off to meet my favorite friend in life these days, the toilet.
“You don’t care what happened to us?” Alexander shouted after me.
I was about to make the right turn towards my bathroom when I yelled over my shoulder, “You live to be my age and your bladder will explain it all to you.” I closed the door and said hi to Bosco. You probably think I’m nuts, but when you spend as much time as I do visiting this guy, you might as well give him a name. The way I looked at it, he was better than a tech-support hotline—available 24/7 and no long wait times.
Back on the lanai, Alexander gently wiped Harris’s face with paper towels. I’d barely made it through the lanai door when he said, “I never saw anything like it, brah, somebody threw a body off a plane.”
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