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We were having dinner in a banyan tree.
Neither of us had ever eaten in a tree before.
More accurately, we hadn't had dinner at all yet. But our white-turbaned, dark-skinned waiter had just preceded us in near-darkness up the wooden steps leading to the tree house, carrying a huge silver tray laden with roast squab stuffed with wild quail eggs, mangoes and broiled bananas, liqueurs and champagne.
Now he turned on a soft light, placed the tray on a low table before the narrow Persian couch covered voluptuously with soft and colorful pillows, waited while Loana and I sank into the pillows, and said, grinning as if he were going to drink it himself, Shall I open the champagne?
Yes, indeed! I said. Open away.
As he lifted the bottle from its silver ice bucket I looked at Loana, close on my left. It had to be close. The tree house was only about eight feet long and four feet wide, but with all the comforts you seldom find at home — such as Loana.
Gorgeously Polynesian Loana Kaleoha.
With volcanic eyes and breasts.
With lips as hot and red as the devils derriere.
With eye-wrecking curves that must have been shaped by a blowtorch.
Happily with me: Shell Scott.
We were in Don the Beachcombers Tree House in the Banyan, in the heart of the International Market Place at Waikiki. I was a bit dizzy, and Loana was part of the reason. But before coming outside and climbing up into the Banyan Tree we had sat at Don the Beachcombers Dagger Bar down below and nearby. Wed had Puka Pukas and Nui Nuis and a Cobras Fang or two. Then wed moved to our table in the adjacent Bora Bora Lounge and consumed a Zombie and Skull-and-Bones while I'd cooked the pupu — tender chunks of marinated sirloin speared on bamboo skewers and broiled over glowing charcoal in a miniature hibachi on our table.
All those drinks were more than a little loaded with rum, so we, too, were now more than a little loaded with rum.
Loana, my sizzling Oahu tomato, I said, shall we let the food cool while we have a glug of Mumms?
She smiled, white teeth flashing, devil-red lips parting hotly. Why not? Long, darkly curving lashes veiled her black eyes. Its either that or we let the champagne get warm.
What an unthinkable thought. Cold squab, yes. But who ever heard of hot champagne?
There was the satisfying thoop of the cork leaving the bottles mouth, then the liquid gurgle as our waiter poured two glasses brimful of the bubbling wine. He put the bottle back into the ice next to another quart of the bubbly, stepped to a small record player on my right.
In a moment soft music washed over us, strings singing in the night, the sound of surf breaking on sands, crystal voices singing Polynesian songs that were old when Hawaii was young.
I grinned at Loana, so relaxed my veins seemed to be collapsing, and said, Here we sit, high over the world.
Honey, lets live here. Far from the madding madness.
Far? She laughed softly. With a thousand people walking around down there?
Far enough. They cant see us.
They couldn't. They were there beneath us, all right, hundreds of citizens, lovers, husbands and wives and kids and tourists, strolling from shop to shop in the Market Place, but they couldn't see or hear us. We could see them, though, if we wanted to. This little house, lodged securely high in the Banyan Tree, had segmented thatched walls, foot-wide panels of which could be pushed out by hand if you wanted to peek at the citizens. We didn't want to peek at the citizens.
The waiter coughed gently and when I glanced at him he was holding open a small door in a cabinet beneath the record player.
The phone, sir, he said.
Yes, sir. If you wish anything else, phone and I will attend to it.
I thought about that. I rather liked it. You mean, if we want more champagne or something I just pick up the phone?
Yes, sir. As I leave, I must make certain that both gates are locked behind me. I cannot come back up unless you call and ask for me. He wiggled a key ring in his hand and grinned that champagne-drinking grin again. In fact, sir, unless you call me ... you cannot get out.
He followed his grin through hanging bamboo beads which were both entrance and exit of the little house, and I heard him going down the wooden steps. There was the click of the gate midway up the stairs, and a minute later I heard the soft clink of a chain. The bottom gate, at ground level, was quite sturdy, I remembered, chained and padlocked.
I glanced at Loana. You're trapped. I may tear out the phone.
Lets, she said.
We can set up tree-housekeeping. Ill be the Oahu Tarzan and swing yodeling from limb to limb every day, gathering mangoes and fighting off apes.
Good. Ill bind your wounds and be your ... who is it?
Jane. Me Tarzan, you Jane. Now theres a line for you.
You still insist that you really do fight apes, Shell?
But of course, Jane. I struck my chest rather severely, and let out a small yowl. When I must — but tonight, no. And not in trees. Tonight we drink champagne.
We did. We finished the first glass and I poured a second, thinking somewhat sourly of what Loana had said.
I had told her I was a private detective, and — facetiously — that I fought apes for a living. But in a sense it was true: I seem to run up against many individuals who, in the evolutionary race, appear to have got stuck on the starting blocks. Ape-like humans such as Slobbers OBrien and Danny Ax, Ed Grey, and alliteratively — and accurately — named Biff Boff.
Hoods, one and all. And some of those hoods had been trying to kill me for the last few days. They were still trying, and getting better at it. My home is in Hollywood, and the office of Sheldon Scott, Investigations, is in Los Angeles, so here in Honolulu I was a long way from my balmy Southern California beat; but the apes with guns had caught up with me even here. Right now the cylinder of the short-barreled .38 Colt Special resting in the clamshell holster beneath my gabardine coat held two recently-emptied cartridge cases along with the three live pills still in the chambers.
I had been shot at, slugged, sapped, attacked from numerous directions and generally half-mutilated already; but all that, I told myself, was in the days recently passed and the day here in Honolulu just ending. There would undoubtedly be more of the same tomorrow — but, with any luck, not tonight.
Tonight there were soft music and soft pillows, champagne and squab — and Loana Kaleoha.
One of the reasons I'd come to Hawaii was to check up on Loana, confirm or erase suspicions I'd had about her. But those suspicions had developed before I'd met her, talked to her, and I felt sure now that she couldn't be the gal I had been trying to find. A gal so gorgeous and exciting couldn't be mixed up in the ugliness of these past days — kidnaping and murder, violence and threats....
I pushed my mind away from all that. It could keep for an hour. Hell, a man has to eat.
Loana held out her empty glass. Where were you? she asked me. Your eyes had a glazed, far-off look.
The glaze is from Puka Pukas and Nui Nuis, I said. But I have definitely been too far-off. I moved closer to her, and she helped by sliding an inch or two toward me.
I could have shut my eyes, I think, and known she was there. I think I could have felt the heat of her. It was as if the blowtorch that might have fashioned her fantastic curves had left most of its heat inside her. It oozed from her sun-browned flesh, flashed from her eyes, burned on her lips.
Loana was a dancer, a Tahitian dancer, and she was much like that dance itself — sensual, exciting, pulse-stirring, savagely beautiful. She was tall, with black hair hanging in a long lustrous loop over one smooth brown shoulder. Thick lashes fringing black eyes, brows like black spurs. But she was soft, too, her curves melting, her voice like the rustle of black lace; and there was a sweetness about her that tugged at your heart while the eyes and mouth, boldly thrusting breasts and hips, tugged at your eyes.
We must have made quite a contrast, quite a pair.
She was dark, smoldering, beautiful, with hair black as the first sin. But I have short-cropped stand-up hair which, at thirty, is so blond and sun-bleached that its white, and obtrusively white eyebrows that look bent and pushed down at their ends; a broken — gently broken, I call it — nose; skin tanned almost as dark as Loana's. She was tall enough, but just the right size next to my six feet, two inches and two hundred and five pounds. I was still wearing the beige gabardine suit I'd worn on the plane, but Loana had on a dark blue holomuu splashed with white plumeria blossoms. Around her neck and caressing her breasts was the lei of small vanda orchids shed been given earlier in the Bora Bora Lounge. I look about as soft and feminine as the Rock of Gibraltar after a bombing attack, but Loana was the eternal woman, the ultimate in femininity, a Polynesian Eve in a holomuu.
And a holomuu is not to be confused with a muumuu. Ah, no. The muumuu was introduced to these happy islands by a shivering missionary who thought in his goofy way that nudity and semi-nudity, bare flesh, glorious and innocently beautiful bare bodies were — for the birds. The bad birds. The birds which cleverly go around dropping things on missionaries.
It is not now known whether this cat took showers with all his clothes on and his eyes squeezed tightly shut, but he clad those wind-brushed bodies and sun-caressed skins in billowing goonysacks, the muumuu — like an Yves Laurent creation, the original sick sack, a straight-up-and-down shapeless monstrosity which covers a woman up practically to her ears and leaves all beneath it a matter for hopelessly dismal conjecture.
But from it grew — to prove that you cant keep a good idea down forever — a kind of fitted, clinging garment called a holomuu. Fitted in a fashion to cause welcome fits, to make eyeballs need Band-Aids, to make the graves of wildly twirling missionaries pop open in censored eruptions. Looking at Loana in her holomuu, which seemed merely to emphasize the proud swelling of breasts, the taut flatness of stomach, the eternally provocative thrust of hip and thigh, I could almost forgive that bloody missionary. Almost.
By the time wed finished our first bottle of champagne, I had forgiven him. For some minutes now Loana and I had been chortling and yipping, guzzling and nuzzling, laughing and talking in such happy abandon that our tree house must have been wobbling on its limbs. I got up once and turned the records over, and it was either the tree or me that was wobbling on its limbs.
But I made it back to the voluptuously-pillowed couch and said to Loana, Heigh-ho, hey, boy. Give me a tree any old time.
The conversation was occasionally a bit disjointed, but neither of us seemed to mind. Occasionally we had looked at the food, and now Loana bent over the tray and unwrapped the foil from the little squabs. She touched one with a long finger. Then she looked at me.
Squabs getting cold, she said brightly.
Isnt that grand?
Grand. Would you like a bite?
Yeah. So bite me.
She bit me. My blood was sizzling in my veins as if it were carbonated. Champagne bubbles were popping in my arteries, silver explosions like bursting flavor buds conspiring with rum to get my plasma loaded.
And then Loana got up, and in the very confined space of our locked-up little room, did a little Tahitian dance for me. Although, truly, there is no such thing as a little Tahitian dance. When she sat down by me again she finished the last swallow of her champagne.
Not once had she said, It tickles — bless her — but now she said, My nose itches.
That means you're going to kiss a fool! I cried.
Kiss me, you fool.
I kissed her. Im no fool.
Ah, us fools! I cried. My nose itches all over.
And there we went again. Then I said, Loana, how would you like to try on a hula skirt?
Oh, Shell. Don't be silly. Where would we get a hula skirt?
Whos silly? I looked around for the package. Before meeting Loana I had done a small amount of shopping and had purchased two grass skirts to take back to the mainland. I knew I'd brought the package up with me, and suddenly I spotted it, over in the corner by my shoes.
There it is, I said, and grabbed it, feverishly tore at the wrappings.
Loana said, but with a smile, Only women wear grass skirts like those.
That was in the old days, my sweet. When Kamehameha was king. These are the new days, the Shell Scott days, the days when everybody wears grass skirts — well fix that missionary.
I thought: if we stop to think about it, well never do it. Not up in a tree right out in the open air in the middle of Waikiki, not with hundreds of people around all unaware, not with — oh, the hell with it.
I ripped open the package and handed Loana one of the hula skirts, kept the other for myself.
She said, You mean you bought these and brought them up here? Why, Shell, you planned it!
No. Really, no. Honest. I just happened to have a couple with me. I swallowed. I mean, I was shopping. Oh, I don't know — its fate, that's it, fate. Its like a command. This was meant to be.
She laughed. You mean something horrible will happen to us if we don't put them on?
I ... well, something horrible may happen to me. Honest Injun. I mean, honest Tahitian ... honest. Oh, pour some cold champagne on me, baby. Hit me with the bottle or something.
Kiss me, you fool, she said. My nose itches. Then she gurgled throatily, squeezed her black eyes shut and said, I got it backwards that time, didn't I?
Honey, you got it frontwards.
And then, all of a sudden, we were getting into those hula skirts. You wouldnt believe what a scene it was. For one brief moment — actually, one of the last brief moments of sanity left to me, though I couldn't possibly have anticipated what was going to happen — for that brief moment I thought I must be dreaming it. Imagining it. This couldn't be ... could it?
But it was.
In half a minute Loana, now with the grass skirt low on her hips, and only the delicate petals of vanda orchids upon her brazen breasts, sank back into the massed pillows behind her. It was a sight that seemed to get me drunk and sober me up at the same time. Behind my back the records turned, music poured soft upon us, the sound of surf, the beat of winds, the sighing, sobbing voices.
When Loana spoke again it was different from the words wed lightly used before, and the words had a different sound.
Kiss me. Shell, she said. Her voice rustled like black lace in darkness. Kiss me....
After a while I opened the second bottle of champagne. We were laughing again. I poured both our glasses full and leaned over the silver tray of food. I unwrapped the foil, looked at the cold, cold, cold squabs. Examined the lovingly prepared slices of fruit, the nest of limp potato sticks.
Got to eat something, I said. What will the cook think? By golly, Ill have a wild quail egg.
Ill have a wild quail egg, too.
It sounds a bit odd, when I hear you say it, Loana.
Ill have one anyway.
We had them. One apiece, that was all. Theres a time for wild quail eggs and a time not for wild quail eggs. I guess I just wasn't ready for it. The thing was delicious, but I couldn't get all wrapped up in it somehow.
And I was dizzy. Dizzier than before.
I think my blood is burning, Loana, I said. That's my trouble — fired blood. It is flaming like oil and the frantic corpuscles are stampeding for exits. Got to get some air. That's what I need, air.
I stood up and my legs seemed to be moving independently of each other, as if one leg was all foot. My head has gone to sleep, I said. I — oops! My foot, or leg that was a foot, had hit a toppled champagne bottle and the bottle went rolling toward the bamboo-bead-draped exit.
Loana sat up straight. Air? she said, in a kind of horrified tone.
What in hell are you talking about?
You said you were going to get some air.
Oh, yeah. For my corpuscles. To give me new vim. You know, fresh air. This is all beat up in here. Its like inhaling exhales.
But you cant go out on a limb like that!
Excerpted from Dance with the Dead by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1988 Richard Scott Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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