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DEATH AND NEAR DEATH

by

John A. Broussard


 

Chapter 1

“Qual’s gone on vacation, Father Duffy,” Leilani said to the small, gray-haired man dressed in the threadbare, black suit, “but if it’s something legal you wanted to see him about, I’m sure Laura Correa would be happy to help you. She’s our new attorney.”

Laura had now been with the firm of Smith, Chu, Yoshinobu and Correa for almost a year, but receptionist Leilani Pak continued to regard her as the firm’s “new attorney.” In much the same way she had referred to her youngest child as the “baby,” long after he had started school and was objecting vociferously to the designation.

The visitor gave Leilani’s statement some thought. “How long will he be gone?”

“At least a week. Him and Craig are on an ocean cruise around the islands. We all tried to talk Qual into taking at least a month off. There’s no reason why they couldn’t stop at Kauai or Molokai, and he’d have a real chance to rest up. He just hasn’t been himself lately. There’s been too much work and too much worry.”

Father Duffy smiled. “Then I guess it’s just as well he isn’t here. I don’t want to add to his burdens, so maybe it would be a good idea if I did speak to Attorney Correa instead.”

While Father Duffy had never met the slight, dark haired attorney, no introduction was necessary for Laura. She recognized him immediately. Since she had been born on the island of Elima and had lived there most of her life, it would have been strange for her not to know the notorious Father Duffy. Few protests against America’s frequent wars and the military in general, against nuclear waste and other toxic disposal, against unpopular development, against intrusion on Native Hawaiian rights, lacked his presence.

So committed to these and similar causes had he become that Father Duffy and his church had long ago decided it was to their mutual benefit to part company. The honorific could not be as easily shed, however. The homeless who crowded his mission store-front, the contributors whom he hounded for continued support for his establishment, and even the police who regularly rounded him up at demonstrations--all of them still called him “Father.” Laura was no different.

“Come in, Father Duffy. What kind of trouble are you causing these days?” She waved him to a seat.

Father Duffy smiled as he lowered himself carefully into one of the large and comfortable Naugahyde chairs in Laura’s office. “I just read in the paper where some prison official, when asked what could be done to prevent recidivism, said age was the best rehabilitator. He’s right, and it does to us activists what it does to all the other criminals. My arthritis doesn’t let me climb chain-link fences the way I used to.”

Laura laughed. “I can’t believe anything will ever stop you, Father Duffy. Even if you aren’t sitting down in front of army trucks, you’ll still be writing letters to the newspapers denouncing the Pharisees.” Laura’s face became serious. “I hope you aren’t here about the eviction notice that’s been all over the papers. We’re strictly into criminal litigation. If you’re thinking of fighting the court decree closing the mission, you’ll have to pick some other firm.”

“No. The main reason I’m here has nothing to do with the eviction, though I did want to talk to Qual about that too. The matter I really wanted to see him about is considerably more serious. It has to do with one of the young men who comes to the mission.”

“Yes?”

“I think he murdered someone.”

***

The firm of Smith, Chu, Yoshinobu and Correa was an extremely successful one. Dealing only with criminal defense, it had filled a need in Elima’s rapidly expanding population. Quality Smith, the founder, had said crime flourished as population increased, and he hadn’t been far wrong. Napua, Elima’s county seat and largest city, where he had established the firm some nine years previously, bore out his prophesy--so much so that almost as soon as he had begun his practice, he discovered he couldn’t keep up with demand. Looking around for a suitable partner, he found Sidney Chu. The handsome young Chinese proved to be a highly effective courtroom lawyer, so even more business flowed to the firm because of him.

Some ten months later, Keiko Yoshinobu added her much needed services to the firm. The tall and attractive Kay, with her quick grasp of the law, was a perfect complement to Sid. For his part, he was more eager to perform in court than to do the necessary and often tedious research which preceded the performance. It had taken years for the two of them to smooth out the rough edges of their relationship, which included more than a mutual interest in the law. Much to Leilani’s satisfaction, and due--she firmly believed--to her encouragement, the young attorneys had finally married.

The middle-aged, heavy-set Hawaiian woman’s special concern these days was the “new attorney,” and Laura was the repeated topic of conversation between Leilani and her husband, John Pak. The conversation flowed mainly in one direction--from Leilani to the patient John. In their years of marriage, he had learned occasional nods were the only contributions necessary to keep Leilani happy and talking. “I’m really worried about Laura,” Leilani had said on the previous evening. “She’s picked up with no-account Thor Wagner. I knew there was going to be trouble the minute Qual passed Thor along to Laura as a client. I told him so. But all he said was, ‘She’s three times seven.’”

John merely nodded in acknowledgment of Qual’s intransigence as he continued wrapping twine around the handle of a short bladed Japanese sickle he was repairing. Leilani snorted at Qual’s shortsightedness. “That’s the biggest problem with Qual. He just doesn’t know anything about women. Not anything at all. Laura may be a good worker. No one denies it. Best of all, she knows the law, but it doesn’t mean she can handle the likes of smooth-talking Thor.

“Why she didn’t marry Emil Bautista when she had the chance is beyond me. You couldn’t ask for a better man. Here he’s the prosecuting attorney, and has a good future ahead of him. Besides, she had Bill Kuroyama just crazy about her. With the successful divorce practice he has, he would have been a great catch——but no, she just had to keep playing around. You mark my words. She’s going to shed a bitter tear over losing Emil and Bill, and a lot more tears if she keeps having anything to do with that good-for-nothing Thor.”

The object of Leilani’s concern had at the moment been wrestling with the problem of Thor Wagner. The wrestling had occurred in Laura’s queen-sized bed. She had just buried her face in Thor’s shoulder to muffle her cries as she felt the crashing pain and pleasure of her orgasm. When her mind cleared, she had begun to wonder about herself, because her estimate of Thor Wagner really differed little from Leilani’s.

***

Laura’s reaction to Father Duffy’s statement had been automatic. She reached for a fresh pad of legal-sized paper from the table behind her. Poising her pen over the pad, she looked expectantly at the old man. “Want to start at the beginning?”

“His name is Williams, Shelton Williams. He’s a black, somewhere in his mid-twenties. He came over from the Mainland several months ago. Like a lot of men over there, he heard business is booming here in Hawaii and how unemployment’s way down. So he borrowed enough money for the fare from his brother. He has no skills, and he’s a high-school dropout.

“Shelton’s really quite intelligent, but he can just barely read and write. I guess that’s not much different than a lot of men his age from the ghetto schools these days. So, when he got here, he found out the developers have more unskilled help available than they know what to do with. With sugar-growing virtually a dead industry, all the cane workers are lining up for the menial jobs. Actually, there are plenty of jobs around, but not quite enough to reach down to newcomers at Shelton’s level. People like him get here and don’t even have unemployment insurance to tide them over, no relatives to give them any help, not even friends to give them a roof over their heads.”

Laura interrupted. “Just a minute, I want to tape this if it’s OK with you.”

Father Duffy nodded and, as soon as she had pushed the record button, continued. “Shelton is a likable person, but he can only do what he thinks he knows best. With no job and no money, he does what a lot of the others in the same fix do. He steals, but can’t even succeed at stealing. That’s why he’s been a regular visitor to the mission. A couple of house break-ins netted him some hi-fi equipment he had no place to store and was afraid to try selling. So he just abandoned it. The cash came to a roll of postage stamps and about six dollars in small change. The few pieces of jewelry he picked up turned out to be dime-store specials.

“What really convinced Shelton he wasn’t going to make much as a burglar was that people in Napua who have anything have learned the price of progress. Unlocked doors are becoming a rarity these days, and the residents are buying deadbolts, burglar alarms and even guns.”

“Have the police connected him to the break-ins?”

“No. I doubt any of them were even reported. You know how a lot of the locals are. They’d just as soon not have any truck with the police. In any event, Shelton wasn’t about to press his luck by trying any more of them, and he knew his visibility was too high for him to do any purse snatching. Well, he began to get desperate and decided to try his hand at some nighttime holdups. The main problem was that he couldn’t get enough money together to even buy one of those cheap handguns they sell on Front Street.

“So, according to Shelton, he borrowed a butcher knife out of our kitchen and hitched a ride up to Pu’ukole Lookout. That was almost a month ago. He hid in the bushes until it started to get dark, waiting for a tourist to stop by--someone all by himself. He had a long wait, and he was getting cold. The trades can be pretty biting up there this time of the year.

“The only loner was another hitchhiker who unloaded at the lookout. By then the moon had come up, but it was still pretty dark, and Shelton was getting desperate. He pulled a stocking over his face, put the knife against the other man’s back, forced him to go into the bushes out of sight and made him empty his pockets. Then, when Shelton was about to pick up the money and run, the other man turned on him and tried to snatch the knife away. They fought, and the knife got lost in the struggle. Shelton managed to knock him out.”

“How big is Shelton?”

“Not big enough to do anyone any real harm without help of some kind. This time the help was a rock. Even then, the blow couldn’t have been much, because that’s when things really began to go wrong. While Shelton’s trying to pick up the money again, the man struggles to his feet, is all groggy, and stumbles over the cliff edge.

“Shelton says he was petrified, but he still went to the edge and looked down. According to him, there’s about a ten foot drop to a small ledge there before the ground slopes off and then goes straight down several hundred feet into Puka Wahine. The man’s lying unconscious on the outcrop. Shelton’s so relieved he runs most of the way back down to Napua. As he says, it wouldn’t have done him much good to try and hitchhike since most people don’t stop for hitchhikers at night, and certainly not if they’re blacks.”

Laura again interrupted the narrative. “What makes him think he killed the man, since he says the guy was just unconscious when he left him there?”

“Because he’s been checking the papers ever since it happened, and there’s been nothing in them about someone being attacked at the lookout. So he’s convinced the man rolled over, fell into the gulch and died.”

“The robbery not showing up in the papers isn’t hard to explain,” Laura said, with a shrug. “That hitchhiker was probably an unemployed drifter, too. He wasn’t about to go to the police and report being mugged. Do you think someone like Shelton would ever report a crime to the police?”

“This wasn’t someone like Shelton. That’s why he’s so worried.”

Laura looked up from her note pad. “How does he know who the person was? Oh, his wallet, I bet.”

Father Duffy nodded. “When Shelton opened it up, there was a police badge pinned to the inside of it.”




Chapter 2


Sid and Kay had decided to visit their new, almost-completed home right after lunch. Located part way up Ridge Trail, the building faced out over the outskirts of Napua, down a long sloping hill, which fortunately belonged to the state and was therefore unoccupied. Because of the location, they had an unobstructed ocean view. The two of them stood looking through the window of their unfinished front room at the breakers crashing on Elima’s western shore a mile away and some thousand feet below.

Gil Iwamoto, the materials supplier for the house, was with them and was trying to say something to them over the earsplitting music from a boom box. The construction workers, who were swinging the pieces of plasterboard into place, considered the audio equipment as essential a part of the job as hammers and scaffolding. Gil signaled to his companions to go outside.

When they finally got far enough away from the sound to where they could make themselves understood, Gil gave the others an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry about the concert, but they’re by far the best plasterers around. The contractor says he can just turn them loose and not worry about the job.”

Sid answered his apologetic smile with a reassuring grin. “I can see why he doesn’t hang around once he’s turned them loose. But I can’t really fault them. I remember my father pounding on my bedroom door and telling me if I didn’t turn down my hi-fi I’d be deaf by the time I got to college. He was way off, because I could hear every note back there clearly. Too clearly.”

Kay broke in. “You weren’t far wrong, Gil, when you told us way back at the beginning that the finish work would take the longest. But from the way things were going last week, I thought we’d be moving in by now.”

Gil nodded. “We’re actually about two days ahead of schedule. If the fixtures come in from Honolulu on Tuesday’s barge, like they’re supposed to, we’ll have you in by the end of next month.”

“Just imagine,” Sid said. “This will be the last rent check we’ll have to make out.”

“I’ve got good news for you, Sid,” Kay said. “I just checked our rental agreement. You’ve forgotten, but when you first rented the apartment you paid first month and last month’s rent. We’re in the clear with the landlord.”

“Well, hooray. Some unexpected money showing up for a change instead of just disappearing. We’ll have to celebrate. Maybe we should repeat the ground-breaking ceremony and have a house warming. Craig and Qual will be back by then, for sure.”

“If the food’s as good as it was for ground-breaking,” Gil said in approval, “I’m all for it. Do I get an invitation?”

“You sure do, Gil,” Sid said. “You saved us a lot of headaches on this house. Neither of us would have ever had the time to put in here, or the patience to supervise, much less the know-how to find a reliable contractor. We wouldn’t have known the first thing about what we were doing if we’d tried it. You really deserve a lot more than a house-warming pig-out.”

Gil gave a self-deprecating shrug and changed the subject. “I didn’t get to see Qual before he left. How’s he feeling?”

“Still pretty rough,” Kay said. “The Forbes case took a lot out of him. Kay and Laura and I insisted he get away for a while. Leilani played the mother role, as usual. She’s good at it, and I think she was the one who convinced him to take a vacation. Craig was terribly concerned about him. But they were both looking better already when we said good-bye to them on the cruise ship.”

“I know how he must have felt,” Gil said. “It must have been a horrifying experience.”

“Which reminds me,” Kay said, looking at her watch. “Much as I’d like to stay and listen to the music, we’ve got to get back to the office. If we want to get off early for a set of tennis, we’d better do our share of the work around the office. Laura’s probably knee deep in clients by now.”

“I doubt it,” Sid said. “I’ve never seen it so quiet around there. I’m not complaining though. Who was it who said that the world won’t be a happy place until the last attorney applies for unemployment benefits? If it stays this quiet at the office, maybe we’ll just retire, relax and really enjoy our new home.”

***

“I had a long talk with Shelton before coming here,” Father Duffy said. “He freed me from the seal of the confession,” he added with a wry smile and explained. “I still cart around much of the same baggage I used to carry, though my current journey is a rather different one. Shelton and I agreed we’d leave it up to Qual to decide what to do. Since Qual isn’t here, you’re going to have to be the decision maker.”

“It won’t be difficult to make this decision,” Laura said, emphatically. “The rules on such matters are clear and strict around here. If Shelton’s my client, I have to give him the best advice possible. And the best advice is for him to go to the police. I’ll be alongside at the station to make sure his rights are protected. If you know where he is, we’ll go find him and then make a call on Lieutenant DeMello.”

“Shelton’s at the mission waiting to hear what I found out. I had a pretty good idea about the kind of advice I’d get here, and I told him so. He’s prepared to cooperate in any way he can. As a matter of fact, I’m sure he’ll be relieved to get the whole thing over with.”

“On the other matter,” Laura began as she picked up her briefcase, emptying it of most of the papers it contained before slipping in the tape recorder and the pad with the notes she’d been taking, “have you found any way of saving the mission?”

“That’s part of the reason I wanted to see Qual. He told me he has some attorney friends in Honolulu who specialize in such cases, and he wanted me to come by to see him about it. I wanted to fill him in on the latest turn of events.”

While the two of them were starting out to Laura’s car, she said, “If I remember right, when old Mr. Uchima died last year, the son who inherited the building sold it to Hamilton Wagner. As soon as he took over he said you didn’t have a lease. Then he started eviction proceedings. Have I got it right?”

“Yes. The minute he got ownership he sent me a letter telling me I’d have to find someplace else for the mission.”

“That greedy sonavabitch! Excuse me, Father Duffy, but there’s no other way to describe him. He already owns half of Napua, and now he wants the other half. I can’t think of anyone who has a good word to say about him. What in the world does he think he’s going to do with that old building?”

Father Duffy nodded absently while strapping himself into the passenger seat. “He had plans for tearing it down and putting in one of his used car lots, or parking lot, or whatever. Well, you know how every building is in use these days in Napua. There just wasn’t anywhere for me to move the mission. I looked around, but anything even close to being suitable was more money than I could ever possibly hope to raise. So I just never answered the letter. A week ago I was served with the court order giving us a month to get out. All I could do was hope something would happen to save us.”

Laura glanced out of the corner of her eye at her passenger. “No prayers?”

Father Duffy smiled. “I stopped praying years and years ago, when I realized the Good Lord doesn’t need my advice if something needs doing, nor any thanks if He does what He’s supposed to do. I stopped believing in miracles at just about the same time.” He paused, then added “Except that five days ago something happened which badly shook my lack of faith.”

They had pulled up into the supermarket parking lot whose far end was located at the back of the storefront mission. Getting out, Laura waited for the emerging Father Duffy, and then asked “What did that?”

“Hamilton Wagner.” Father Duffy stopped and looked over the hood of the car at Laura. There was a thoughtful frown on his face. “He came into the mission early one morning, sat down quietly, and said he was going to tell the court to cancel the eviction notice. He also told me the mission could stay where it was, rent free, as long as I wanted it to.”

Laura looked completely unbelieving. “Do you mean to say Hamilton Wagner is actually letting you stay there indefinitely, and rent free?”

“Yes, and there’s more,” Father Duffy continued. “We talked for a while, and I was having problems following what he was saying, partly because of the shock I’d received, but partly because what he was asking me was so extraordinary.”

“What was he asking?”

“He was asking if he could help serve food to the people coming in off the street for breakfast in the morning.”

***

Sergeant Corky Medeiros was watching Lieutenant Hank DeMello while he was speaking over his office phone. His hair’s getting grayer, she thought. Toni’s right. He’s getting to be more distinguished looking all the time. Even the beer pot he denies he has makes him look like an elder statesman. The best part of it is he just generally seems to be mellowing as he gets older.

The mellowing Corky had in mind related mainly to Hank’s attitude toward women. Until recently, he had been the twenty first century equivalent of the nineteenth century adolescent school boy. While not dipping braids of hair into inkwells, Hank seemed incapable of dealing with an attractive woman in any way except as an attractive woman. He was even more incapable of understanding why he should do otherwise.

“It’s because it’s a stereotype, that’s why,” an exasperated Corky had once tried to explain to him. “Some attractive women are plain bitches. Some are saints. Most are ordinary everyday folks, just like everyone else, but every time you talk to a nice looking woman, you start to drool.”

“Aw c’mon, Corky,” Hank had said. “Doesn’t your adrenaline flow when you see a man you’re attracted to?”

“Sure, and if I’m horny at the time, I might want to bed him down. But that doesn’t mean I go around telling men what nice tight buns they have or commenting on how they bulge out their pants. I don’t just go carrying on a lot of sexual prattle with them the way you do with women. You know it’s going nowhere. Toni would skin you alive if she ever thought you were having an affair. I hate to say this, Hank, but if you’d been born a woman, the men would have called you a cock teaser.”

While that dialogue may not have been the source of the apparent mellowing, Corky thought she did see some subsequent changes in Hank’s behavior. At the present moment she decided it was perhaps maturity bringing about the change.

Hank was shaking his head as he hung up the phone, saying, “Weird. Weirdo!”
“What’s weird?”
“Laura Correa’s weird, or else her client is. She’s bringing him in. He says he thinks he may have killed someone.”

“You mean he doesn’t know whether or not he has? Phew! Talk about weird.”

“It’s weirder than that. He says the someone was a cop.”

***

“Father Duffy was by,” Leilani told Kay and Sid on their return. “One of his boys is in some kind of trouble, so Laura went out to the mission with him.”

Kay nodded absently as she slipped on her reading glasses and started sorting through the morning mail.

Sid, checking the phone messages, said, “Cal Lim called. Any idea what he wanted, Leilani?” Cal, the former county pathologist, was a close friend of theirs and currently in practice at the Napua Medical Center. A friendly, outgoing Chinese with a Charlie Chan accent he affected as though mocking his own appearance, Cal was a favorite of almost everyone who knew him.

Leilani shook her head. “He just said to give him a ring when you came in. It didn’t sound like any kind of an emergency, but he did want you to call as soon as you got here.”

Kay went off to look at her own phone messages while Sid called Cal.

“Emil Bautista? The Luiz case? Did he say anything else, Leilani?”

Again, Leilani shook her head. “He said he wanted to talk to you about it. It’s sure strange to hear Emil call and not have him ask for Laura.”

Kay smiled. “Poor Leilani. When will you learn to stop worrying about us? It was Laura’s decision to stop going out with Emil. It was her decision to make. After all, you have to admit our county prosecutor isn’t exactly a woman’s idea of a wildly exciting date.”

Leilani sniffed. “I’m sure he’s nowhere near as wild or exciting as Thor Wagner.” She watched Kay closely for any reaction to the name and was convinced there had been one. She was also convinced it had not been positive.
“Hey Kay,” Sid shouted from his office, “Break out your fanciest duds. We’ve got a heavy dinner date. Super-special food.”

“Don’t tell me. Let me guess. The Vice President is coming to Hawaii and he wants us to dine with him on Air Force Two.”

“Much better than that; we’re being taken out to the Malalani.”

Leilani gave a low whistle.

Kay said, “That must mean the Vice President is traveling on a government paid-expense account. No one I know can afford to pay for a meal there out of their own pocket.”

“Cal Lim can. He says he promised he’d take us there when he sold his Hong Kong property, and he just received the bank draft. He’s having a high over it. So I just couldn’t say no, even though I’ll be darned if I remember the promise. I hope my decision doesn’t interfere with any of our plans.”

Kay smiled. “Just to please Cal, I’ll tear myself away from the tuna casserole I was planning for tonight. In fact, I’ll even give the cats the tuna fish.”

“He’s also using the occasion to bring another couple along, two psychologists the clinic has just hired. He’s sold on them. He thinks they’re the best ever. So I figure they’ll be interesting to meet.”

“It doesn’t much matter what they’re like. I’d enjoy dinner at the Malalani, even with a politician at the table.”

 


END OF SAMPLE



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