FICTION: A Shortage of Things to Say by Albert Tucher

“Interesting,” said the fisherman.

“How is it interesting?” said Coutinho.

It struck him as anything but.

“You could say that’s the southernmost dead man in the United States.”

Coutinho got the joke. No one who drove through the nearby town of Na’alehu could miss the signs in every window:
“The Southernmost Restaurant in the United States.”

“The Southernmost Bar.”

“The Southernmost Gas Station.”

Take that, Key West.

There must also be a southernmost crosswalk down here near South Point on the island of Hawaii. And a urinal, if anybody wanted to get that ridiculous.

Right now Coutinho didn’t care about unfunny geography jokes. He cared about his day off, which was history.

He looked at the body lying face down in the skiff thirty feet below him. Several inches of water sloshed in the bottom of the boat. Did the water have a reddish tinge? The distance and the tentative daylight made it hard to tell.

The boat backed up a few feet and then made another run for the horizon. The rope fastened to its stern pulled taut. Someone had tied the other end of the rope to one of the mooring holes cut into the cliff. According to the archaeologists, the original Polynesian settlers had done the arduous chipping and boring. Fifteen hundred years later the hole still did its job and kept the wind and current from bearing the boat away.

Cell phone reception was iffy down here. Coutinho considered trudging the hundred yards uphill to his Wrangler, where he had a police radio, but he decided to question the fisherman first.

He pointed at the two buckets by the man’s feet. “Yours or his?”

Coutinho knew what was in them. He had his own fishing rig in his vehicle.

“Mine,” said the fisherman.

“What’s your name?”

The man smiled. “Guess you don’t recognize me. Can’t say I blame you.”

Coutinho studied the tall, gaunt man and knew he was failing a test.

“Jefferson Ikeda,” said the man.

“No kidding.”

Ikeda extended his right hand. Coutinho took it and fought an urge to drop it. The bones felt too fragile to press in a proper shake. This man also looked too old and too thin to be the younger kid Coutinho remembered from high school.
“It’s been a long time.”

“Thirty years.” said Ikeda. “Hilo High. The good old days.”

“I guess. No hana today?”

“No hana ever. I’m retired.”

However decrepit he looked, he was young for that.

“From what?”

“The casinos.”

Coutinho didn’t have to ask which casinos. The Hawaiian diaspora in Las Vegas was well known. At some point an economic refugee from the islands had caught on in the casino industry and brought his cousins and his cousins’ friends, and so on.

“I went there two years after I graduated. Haven’t been back for more than a couple of weeks at a time until now.”

“Welcome home.”

“You’re a cop.”

“Does it show?”

“I heard about you now and then in Vegas.”

That was awkward. Coutinho had managed to go thirty years without thinking about this classmate, but Ikeda didn’t seem to hold it against him. Coutinho nodded toward the boat. “When were you going to tell us about him?”

“Couldn’t get a signal.”

“So send somebody.”

As soon as he said it, Coutinho felt stupid. He looked around and confirmed that they had the area to themselves. That was unusual even at this early hour.

“This is a regular high school reunion,” said Ikeda.

“How so?”

“That’s Manny Kahanamoku.”

“Can’t be.”

Coutinho took another look. “He’s missing about two hundred pounds.”

Coutinho remembered dealing with Kahanamoku many times, mostly while trying to cuff him on a tough Saturday night. It hadn’t come up recently, though. Detectives didn’t do as much grappling as uniformed officers.

“The cancer ate him up,” said Ikeda. “He only had a few months left.”

“I guess he was having a good day, if he felt like getting into a boat.”

Jefferson Ikeda didn’t answer. He stood looking down at the ocean and the bobbing boat.

“You don’t look so good, Jefferson.”

“I’m tired.”

But Coutinho thought the man looked even worse than that. “You retired early.”

“This is probably the last time I’m going to get here,” said Ikeda. “And who do I run into but Manny.”

“That’s bad?”

“We have some history. Had.”

“Did he want to pick up where you left off?”

“I’m not sure he recognized me. A lot of that going around.”

Coutinho couldn’t dispute it.

“He calls up to me, can I help him up the ladder? I guess he ran out of strength.”

“He went down there in the dark?”

“No. This was yesterday. Late in the day. We were the last ones around.”

“You’ve been here all night?”

“Sure. I don’t waste much time sleeping these days.”

Coutinho imagined the place at night. It would be cold for these islands, with stars and the groan of the wind farm a couple of miles up the road. A man would have to be homeless, or hungry for experience.

“I’ve been waiting for somebody to come along. You’ll do, I guess.”

A thirty-eight caliber revolver appeared in Ikeda’s right hand. Coutinho’s first reaction was guilty relief that no one had seen him standing there like an idiot. Then he wondered where the gun had been, and how Ikeda came to have it. Firearms weren’t as easy to get in Hawaii as in some mainland states.

Ikeda hefted the revolver. “This is gonna be a little embarrassing for Homeland Security.”

“Why’s that?” said Coutinho in a tone that struck him as a little demented. Facing a gun was pretty serious stuff, but he could have been discussing bait.

“I didn’t realize I brought this thing back with me until I unpacked. Guess it just got to be a habit in Nevada. They should have caught it, though.”

“We’ll have to speak to them about it.”

That left Coutinho with a shortage of things to say. Ikeda seemed to have the same problem, but he was the one with the gun.

“So let’s go fishing,” said Ikeda.

“Okay.”

What else was Coutinho going to say? His off-duty weapon was in his fanny pack, but even an amateur could empty the revolver while Coutinho fumbled with the zipper.

“Why don’t you get me set up?” said Ikeda. “It would be a big help. Not sure I have what it takes.”

The gun barrel dipped, but only for a moment.

Coutinho squatted and inspected the two buckets. One contained Ikeda’s bait, mackerel by the smell of it. The other bucket held the odds and ends that made up the man’s fishing rig. Coutinho reached first for the large white trash bag. He stood and shook it until it unfurled. With his fingers he separated the clinging halves enough to blow between them and open the bag completely. He made a ring with his thumbs and forefingers and gathered the mouth of the bag together to fit his lips. He started inhaling and blowing.

When he had filled the bag with his breath, he twisted the mouth closed. “Those your poles?”

Two of them stood fastened at an angle into a rack near the edge of the cliff. The rack still had a price tag from the sporting goods section of Walmart.

“Yeah.”

Coutinho took the trash bag with him to the cliff. Fishing line dangled from the tip of the longer pole. With his right hand he pulled a length of line free.

The bag had already deflated a little. He topped it up with a couple of lungfuls and tied it off with the end of the fishing line. He pulled the rod out of the rack and held it by the cork grip.

Coutinho stood tall on the edge of the cliff and pointed the rod straight up. The breeze caught the bag and blew it out over the water. He let the line run out after the bag. Now it was a matter of winning as much distance as possible, as the bag sank toward the surface of the ocean.

“I see some guys using colored bags,” said Ikeda. “That’s just wrong. White is the only thing looks right against the sky. And the water, too.”

Coutinho would have agreed, but he was busy. He picked his moment and teased the bag aloft again without pulling it back all the way.

It was tricky, but each time he coaxed the bag up, it looked a little smaller against the sky. Finally he decided that he had all the distance he was going to get. He let the bag settle on the waves. The line stayed taut, as the current tried to bear the bag away over the horizon. It was a good thing that the bag wasn’t searching for land, because nothing intervened until Antarctica.

Had the Polynesians known that?

“Nice,” said Ikeda. “Wasn’t sure I still had the knack, even if I could blow up the bag.”

“You know,” said Coutinho, “this is a violation of the Clean Water Act. The bag could get loose.”

“Got a feeling you won’t tell if I don’t.”

It was true. Coutinho had his own trash bags in his vehicle.

He made sure he had a good grip on the line and cut it off. Ikeda’s second fishing rod was all prepared, with a hook, a sinker, and a white plastic bleach bottle attached to the line. Coutinho tied the first line, the one he had just cut, to the handle of the bottle. Now the trash bag could pull the second line out over the deep water. If a fish bit, the floating bottle would dip.

“Mackerel,” said Coutinho as he reached into the other bucket.

He baited the hook and let the second line unspool. “I’m gonna smell like it all day.” He hoped.

“There’s wipes in the first bucket,” said Ikeda.

“Thanks.”

Coutinho found a Handiwipe and cleaned up as well as he could, which wasn’t very. He felt the wind smooth the shirt against his back. Sometimes it was stronger, sometimes weaker, but it never stopped. It was the same wind that had sculpted the local trees into natural bonsai. Whatever happened here, the wind would keep blowing.

“Look,” said Ikeda. “My favorite rock. Maybe you can go home again.”

Coutinho knew the one he meant–flat and level, with a commanding view of the water. It was just the right height for sitting and considering whatever a man had to consider.

Ikeda walked the eight or ten feet to his rock.

“Some people. No respect.”

Beer cans and a discarded broken sandal littered the ground in front of the rock. Ikeda kicked at the debris and cleared space for his feet. He gestured with the gun.

“There’s room.”

He sat, and Coutinho joined him. About three feet of black volcanic rock separated them.

“Calm today,” said Coutinho.

“Time was, I’d have been cliff diving on a day like this. That was a rush.”

“I remember.”

“The time Manny threw me in, that was less fun.”

Both men looked at Manny Kahanamoku, who seemed content to wait. Not that he had a choice.

“Sounds like he had it in for you.”

“I dunno. I don’t think it was just me. He played football. Anybody who didn’t was nobody. That was a lot of nobodies.”

“I wrestled,” said Coutinho.

“I remember. You had that don’t-mess-with-me thing going on.”

“I did?” That was interesting.

“You could have handled Manny. But you didn’t.”

“I doubt it. I was a middle-weight.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s unfair.”

For a moment everything stopped, even the wind.

“Sorry.”

“No problem.”

Ikeda set the gun down between them. “You know, I don’t even care if I catch anything.”

“I have days like that.”

“I mean, what am I gonna do with a fish?”

“I guess.”

“I suppose I could have talked to him.”

“Manny?”

“Maybe he was different.”

“We haven’t heard much from him lately.”

“The cops?”

“Yeah.”

“You know the weirdest part? I can’t shoot to save my life. First time I ever hit anything at that distance. When you turn him over, you’ll see. Right in the forehead.”

“People are going to start showing up,” said Coutinho. “There’s usually a crowd already by this hour.”

He picked the gun up. Ikeda kept looking out to sea, as if he had caught Coutinho doing something personal and embarrassing. Coutinho unzipped his fanny pack and stowed the revolver with his own off-duty weapon. The added weight made him feel lopsided.

“Gotta pull the line in,” said Ikeda. “We don’t want to hook anything and just leave it to suffer.”

“I’ll do it.”

Ikeda looked even more exhausted. Coutinho reeled the fishing rig in. To keep the trash bag from blowing away, he squeezed the air out of it and stuffed back in the bucket.

“Stay here,” he said. “I have to get on the radio.”

He walked uphill to his Wrangler and unlocked it. As he held the radio, he turned and looked toward the cliff and the water. Ikeda hadn’t moved. Soon he would have to, but not yet. And Coutinho would have to handcuff the man before other cops arrived.

But not yet.

“I need a crime scene unit,” Coutinho told the dispatcher. “I’m down at Ka Lae.”

“Detective, you’re off today. What’s up?”

“Long story.”

#

Albert Tucher is the creator of prostitute Diana Andrews, who has appeared in more than sixty short stories in such venues as SPINETINGLER, THUGLIT, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010. Her first longer case, the novella THE SAME MISTAKE TWICE, was published in 2013 by Untreed Reads. Albert Tucher is a cataloger at the Newark Public Library, where he is legendary for his coffee consumption.

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