AN EXCERPT FROM MAI TAI ONE ON
Drinks on the House
They would have found the body sooner if it hadn't been 2-for-1 Mai Tai Night.
Before all hell broke loose at the Tiki Goddess Bar, Emily Johnson was hustling back and forth trying to wait tables and bartend, wondering if her uncle, Louie Marshall, had slipped out for a little hanky-panky. She couldn't care less that that seventy-two year old was romantically involved, but why did he have to disappear when the bar was the busiest?
Drenched in the perpetual twilight that exists in bars and confessionals, she sloshed an endless stream of sticky, pre-made mai tai mixer into hurricane glasses. Then, just the way Louie taught her, she added double jiggers of white rum and topped off the concoctions with a generous float of dark Meyers.
Six months ago, if anyone would have told her she'd be living on the North Shore of Kauai divorced, broke, and managing a shabby--albeit legendary—tiki bar, she would have told them to start spinning on a swizzle stick.
Em checked her watch. It was 7:45. Not only was her uncle MIA, but her bartender, Sophie Chin, was an hour and a half late. With no time to worry, Em convinced herself that sooner or later, Sophie would show. The twenty-two year old desperately needed the job. In the three months that Sophie had been working at the Goddess, she'd never been late, so Em didn't mind cutting her a little slack.
When Em's cell phone vibrated, she pulled it out of the back pocket of her cargo shorts and flipped it open expecting to hear Sophie's voice.
It wasn't Sophie. It was her ex.
“Em, we need to talk.” His voice was muffled by the noise in the crowded bar.
“We've done all the talking we're going to do, Phillip.” Em tucked the phone between her shoulder and ear hoping it wouldn't slip and fall into the ice bin beneath the bar.
She thought she heard him say, “I want the Porsche.” Em laughed.
If he hadn't screwed half the women in Orange County they would still be married and he would still have his precious Porsche. Now they were divorced and she had sold the only asset she'd been awarded in the split.
She glanced over at the small stage in the back corner of the room where the musicians were about to start the evening's entertainment.
“I'm busy, Phillip. Don't call again.” She snapped her phone shut, shoved it back into her pocket, and wished it was that easy to forget how he'd humiliated her.
A tourist walked up to the bar asking how long it would take to get his order. There was no time to dwell on Phillip. She had to focus on making drinks until Uncle Louie or Sophie appeared.
On stage, Danny Cook, singer and guitar player, began to warm up the crowd with his rendition of Tiny Bubbles. He reassured the audience he was not in any way related to the infamous voyager, Captain Cook, who had discovered the islands and started the first real estate boom. Behind him, his cousin, Brendon, tried to keep time on a drum set that had seen better days.
Back in the ladies room, the Hula Maidens were fluffing and primping, adding final touches to their “adornments” before they took the stage. An enthusiastic group of mostly seniors, the Maidens relied on dramatic costuming to distract from their not-so-great dancing.
Em topped off the tray of tall shapely hurricane glasses with pineapple slices, cherries and lime wedges carefully skewered onto miniature plastic swords. For a final touch she added brightly colored paper umbrellas—warning flags that the drinks were packing a memorable headache.
She was about to heft the tray to her shoulder and step out from behind the bar when a ruddy cheeked, overweight female tourist with a sunburn and a bad perm burst through the front door screaming for help.
Em rushed around the bar. “What's wrong?”
The woman kept screaming. Patrons set down their drinks and stared.
Em grabbed a glass of water off a nearby table and tossed the contents in the woman's face.
The screaming abruptly stopped. The tourist gasped. “There's…there's… there's a man roasting…in the barbeque pit…outside!”
“That's Kimo, our luau chef,” Em said. “In fact, we have plenty of tickets left so if you'd like to—”
“No!” The woman yelled. “He's not cooking. He's…burning up! You have to do something! It's horrible. It's…” The woman's eyes rolled up and she collapsed.
All over the packed room, chair legs scraped against the scarred wooden floor. Dozens of rubber soled thongs slapped skin as locals and tourists grabbed cameras and ran for the door.
There was a strange odor in the air. Em glanced around the nearly empty room. Danny Cook was still singing. Only Buzzy, the aging hippie who lived down the road continued to gnaw on some barbequed ribs. Nothing had fazed Buzzy since he had some bad mushrooms back in the 70's.
Em propped the unconscious tourist against the carved tiki base of a bar stool and followed the crowd around the corner of the building to the back parking lot. Two and three deep, folks ringed the imu. Em hoped to God, Kimo, the cook, hadn't tripped and fallen into the luau pit where he roasted pig.
Em gagged and covered her mouth as she got closer. The air smelled like a mix of singed hair and burning rubber.
“Call 911!” Someone hollered.
“Did already!” At least five people yelled back.
Though the last thing she wanted was to see Kimo roasting, Em forced her way through the throng to get to the edge of the pit. Her pulse was hammering even before she saw a man's body lying face down atop the coals. Fully clothed in a pair of baggy navy blue shorts and a stained white T shirt, he was short and stocky with thick calves that showed above the tops of his black rubber work boots.
The melting boots gave him away.
“Ohmygosh, that's Harold,” Em whispered. Afraid she'd pass out, she took a deep breath and immediately wished she hadn't. She gagged again and tried to concentrate on the crowd.
Kimo suddenly materialized at her side.
“Poor buggah,” he mumbled. “Uh oh. Here comes Uncle Louie.”
Em spotted her six-foot-three-inch uncle's thatch of white hair above the crowd. She shoved her way back out of the circle and ran to his side.
Louie was still spry, attractive, and the picture of health. He had been an impressionable eight-year-old when Victor Bergeron's Trader Vic's Restaurants were all the rage in his home town of San Francisco. At twenty, dreaming of exotic jungle haunts, tiki drums, and cocktails named after WW II bombers and airmen, he set off to explore Polynesia. Against his family's advice, he married an island native, settled down and established the Tiki Goddess Bar on the North Shore of the northernmost inhabited Hawaiian island. Then Louie Marshall sat back and waited for the world to come to him.
Every day he donned one of over fifty loud aloha shirts, a kukui nut necklace, baggy white linen shorts and flip flops. Most days he worked from sunup to well into the next morning. He was tan as a coconut and physically in great shape. He still surfed. Only his mind was failing, or so Em had been told.
“What's going on?” He tried to see over the crowd. When Louie looked down at Em, his expression went blank for a second, as if he had no idea who she was or what she was doing there.
“Someone fell into the luau pit, Uncle Louie,” Em could barely get the words out.
Louie's face may have paled. He was too tan for Em to be sure.
“Who?” He asked.
“Is he all right?”
“He's dead.” Em figured there was no way Harold wasn't dead by now. “At least I hope so,” she mumbled.
Roasting alive was too horrific to imagine.
“Dead! After all these years.” Louie shook his head. “I can't imagine that old bastard gone.”
The sound of sirens echoed along the coastline. The Kauai Police Department's substation and the Hanalei fire station were side by side, a good twenty minutes away.
Em's gaze drifted to the luau hut, a lean-to shelter built not far from the pit. Beneath the thatched roof, the remains of tonight's traditional smoked kalua pig lay spread out on a huge wooden table that served as a carving board. Seeing the roasted pig carcass complete with its head so soon after viewing poor smoldering Harold nearly did her in.
She noticed some folks were actually taking photos of Harold's remains. Others, pale and shaken, huddled together in small groups. Neighbors were starting to gather, swelling the crowd. “We've got to get these people back inside,” she whispered.
“Are the Hula Maidens ready?” Louie glanced over at the dark green, wooden building that housed the Tiki Goddess Bar and restaurant.
Em noticed most of the aging dancers had left their makeshift dressing area in the bathroom to join the crowd around the pit. The huge sprays of variegated leaves pinned atop their heads stuck out like spear tips. They looked like a squadron of tropical Statues of Liberty.
“When aren't they ready to dance?”
Without warning, Louie cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Drinks on the house!”