Ben Apana sat at his desk absent-mindedly playing with a small plastic evidence bag. Inside was an orange-colored beer coaster featuring the black-ink figure of a tiger standing beneath a stylized palm tree. It hadn’t taken Ben long to discover that the coaster bore the logo of a cheap beer made in Singapore called Tiger Gold Medal. A few of his buddies in the department had told him that the stuff tasted, rightly enough, like tiger piss. Ben could neither confirm nor deny their allegation. True, his grandparents were still into some of that weird traditional Chinese medicine. Nevertheless, he’d never tasted tiger piss. Nor was he a beer drinker.
It had been five months since Ben’s promotion to detective and things were not going quite as well as he had hoped. He had three unsolved homicides, the latest being a Jane Doe whose body had been found near one of the canals that drained the Ali Wai out where Kapiolani Boulevard and Kaimuki Avenue ran into one another. It was not the kind of thing that the Visitor’s Bureau liked to see; a woman with her head bashed in a mere ten or fifteen minute walk from Waikiki. Tunes about the flip-side of “paradise” were not ones that anyone wanted to sing. There wasn’t a shred of helpful forensic evidence. Blunt force trauma was about all that the M.E. could tell them. Like they really needed some expert for that! The lab reports also stated that the woman, who looked to be in her mid-thirties, hadn’t been sexually assaulted. There was no identification on the body. Neither were her fingerprints in any of the databases. In back pocket of her blue-jeans, however, they did find the aforementioned beer coaster. It was not much by way of evidence, thought Ben, but you worked with what you had.
Ben was waiting for a fax. He had called around to all the beer and liquor distributors on the island and asked for a listing of any bars, hotels, restaurants or grocery stores that sold Tiger Gold Medal. It was a long shot, but, what the hell else could he do? All the high-tech equipment and complicated science at their disposal and all they had to go on was a friggin’ beer coaster. Son-of-a-bitch! A routine canvas of the area around where the body had been found turned up nothing. Maybe once they had an I.D. they’d be able to get somewhere. While he was waiting, he heard the theme from Hawaii-Five-O. He reached into his pocket and took out his cell phone.
Not recognizing the number on the display, there was more than a hint of impatience and even aggression in his voice, “Apana,” he barked.
“Hey, Ben, is that you? Did I catch you at a bad time?”
It took him a few seconds before he placed the voice. It was Jack Feeney. It was Feeney’s retirement that had cleared the way for Ben’s promotion. The two men weren’t especially close but the older man had stayed on for a few weeks in order to show Ben the ropes and to help him tie up the loose ends on a couple of old cases before he left for good. Feeney had been a good detective in his day but the years had taken their toll. Rumor had it that, a few years back, he had married a younger woman who had a real wild streak. Trouble on the domestic front and pressure at work meant that Jack had seen the bottom of the bottle a few times too many.
“Jack, it’s good to hear from you. Sorry, I didn’t recognize your voice. What can I do for you?”
“Truth is I’m going crazy sitting around here doing nothing. This retirement thing is not all that it’s cracked up to be.”
“Shit, Jack, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Ben responded. “You mean there aren’t enough golf courses on this rock to keep you occupied? Or enough bikini-clad woman for a dirty old man like you to ogle down at the beach? Listen, I’d trade places with you in an eye blink. I have three unsolved homicides sitting on my desk as we speak. I think that’s a record.”
“Listen, I know you’re busy so I won’t keep you. I was thinking that maybe, one of these days, we might get together for a drink or something. Maybe talk a little shop. You never know, I might be able to help you out on one of your cases. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to look at things from a slightly different perspective.”
Damn, Ben thought, I haven’t got time for this. “Well, I can’t make any promises, Jack. You of all people know how that goes. But if I have some time, sure, it’d be great to get together. I have your number. We’ll see how it plays out.”
“Thanks, Ben. Don’t get discouraged. Sometimes these cases just come together sort of on their own. Other times, well, you’ve been around long enough to know that you can’t win them all. Hey, I’ll give you my address. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, just drop in.”
Ben wrote down the address in his notebook. It was a small street running off Campbell Avenue. As he closed his phone, he heard the fax machine behind him start to transmit. He went over and, somewhat surprised, pulled a lone sheet from the tray. He looked the list over and thought “this is either a blessing or a curse.” There were only eight names on the paper, five bars and three grocery stores that either served or sold Tiger Gold Medal Beer on Oahu. Amazingly, they were all clustered along Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki. Ben figured he could hit all of the places, at least initially, that afternoon. He picked up a picture of his Jane Doe, shrugged into his linen sport coat, grabbed his holster and headed out.
He parked on Olohana Street and made his way on foot up to Kuhio. He traveled east, toward Diamond Head. The early afternoon sun was ferociously hot. Down one and up the other side of the broad avenue, he had covered five of the eight locations on his list and, after nearly ninety minutes, all he had to show for it were some fresh stains on his shirt under his armpits. He turned right, down the ass-end of Lewers Street. He was heading for a little place called the Red Chamber Bar located on the ground floor of the Waikiki Joy Hotel between Kuhio and Ali Wai Boulevard. It was tucked just back from the street. The hotel itself had been built in the late ‘50’s or early 60’s. It hadn’t gone completely to seed yet, but it had certainly started to wither.
The bar occupied a fairly spacious area that looked out on the tiny pool that served the hotel guests. As his eyes adjusted to the dimply lit interior, he noticed a small stage to the left of the door and a lengthy bar off to his right. Red leather and traditional Chinese artwork clashed with Mexican sombreros and potted cacti. Clearly the establishment had seen a number of different owners over the years, each with a different idea as to décor and theme. The only occupants were the Hawaiian bartender and a couple of middle-aged, hard-throwers about three-quarters of the way through a liquid lunch.
Ben took a seat at the bar and ordered a glass of iced tea. When his drink came, he opened his wallet to reveal his badge. Once he had the bartender’s attention, he placed the picture of his Jane Doe face-up on top of his shield. “Do you recognize the lady in this picture?”
“Sure,” the bartender answered immediately, “that’s Rita. But, man, she’s actually pretty good looking for a woman her age. She looks like shit in that picture.”
“Yeah, well, she’d dead in that picture, ‘bruddah. How good do you expect her to look?”
The bartender’s face registered genuine surprise.
“Listen, officer,” the bartender stammered. “I didn’t know. It’s not every day I get cops in her showing me pictures of dead customers for Christ’s sake.”
Unfazed, Ben continued. “Does this ‘Rita’ have a last name, by any chance?”
“Not that I’ve ever heard anyone use. She comes in here once, maybe, twice a week. Never any trouble. A good tipper; most of the time she just sits and reads. It’s never too long before guys start hitting on her. Come to think of it, though, she hasn’t been in this week. I guess now I know why.”
“Do you remember if she was in here last Thursday?”
“I worked that night. Let me think,” the bartender said as he wiped the bar down with a damp towel. “I’m pretty sure that she was. I remember now because she seemed kind of down-in-the-dumps abut something. I was busy, though, and never really had a chance to talk to her.”
“Listen,” Ben said, getting up. “If you think of anything else, give me a call. Here’s my card. By the way, did Rita leave with anyone that night?”
“Mister, like I said, at one point or another, and as quiet as she was, Rita basically left with everyone. But, no, I don’t recall that she was with anyone in particular that night. At least not that I saw, anyhow.”
With that Ben turned and walked out. He had hoped for more but at least now he had a name. That’s more than he had two hours ago. He’d be back when the bar was more crowded. Maybe someone had seen or heard something helpful.
Back on Kuhio he spent another thirty minutes or so checking the final two places on his list. No one recognized the woman that he now knew as ‘Rita’. Calling it quits he walked back to his car. Predictably, it was an oven inside. Taking off his jacket and tossing it onto the passenger seat, he opened the windows and turned the air conditioning on full blast. He pulled away from the curb. Turning around he back-tracked on Olohana and, at the corner of Kalakaua, turned left. Fighting the traffic, including hoards of distracted and sunburned tourists crossing the street, he drove toward Kapahulu Avenue where he made another left. Before he even realized what he was doing he was on Campbell Avenue. A few moments later he was parked in front of a little place on Esther Street. He got out of his car. Somewhere in the otherwise quiet, well-tended neighborhood a dog barked. He could see the sere sides of Diamond Head off in the distance. The landmark shimmered in the sunlight as he walked up to the door of the house. The small banana trees that grew in the yard gave off a ripe, cloying scent. There didn’t seem to be a bell, so he knocked. Before long he heard footsteps. The door opened to reveal a balding, powerfully built man in his late fifties.
“Ben! Man, what a surprise,” Jack Feeney blurted. “In all honesty, I figured that I’d never hear back from you. C’mon in. It’s great to see you.”
Ben entered the house. It was dark and cool inside. Instead of the pizza boxes, beer cans and overflowing ashtrays he expected, the place was neat and tidy.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Feeney asked as he ushered Ben into the living room.
“You know, Jack, I’ve been pounding the pavement all afternoon. I would have a soda or some iced tea if you have it.”
“No problem, my friend, coming right up.”
Feeney headed for the kitchen. While he waited, Ben looked around the room where he sat. What struck him most, apart from the absence of photographs, were the shelves of books that lined the far wall. He’d never have taken Jack for a reader. Feeney returned in about two minutes. He had a Scotch in one hand and a tall, icy glass of cola in the other. He set his own glass down first. Before giving Ben his drink, the older man opened the drawer of an end table and extracted a coaster. He placed the coaster at his guest’s elbow and set the condensation-covered glass down on top. Damp as the cardboard circle had become from his soda glass, Ben still recognized the by-now familiar image of the black-ink tiger and palm tree. His eyes traveled up to meet those of his host.
“Jack, tell me, what’s your wife’s name?”
Feeney hesitated a moment too long. He must have sensed something in Ben’s tone. “It’s ‘Rita’,” he responded. “Why do you ask?”