Chapter 1 of the mystery novel The Paradise Connection
In the dream I am the French artist Paul Gaugin, wandering through a tropical rainforest on a remote island in the Marquesas. My face is gaunt and my steps are slow because I am dying from a disease brought to these islands by my own countrymen. But I have put the world and all of its woes behind me and I am content to spend my last days in this strange place, which I have come to love more than life itself.
In the twilight beneath the jungle canopy I float through a sea of dark green colors. I stop to watch a wild pig eating a fallen papaya. He lifts his head to gather my scent, then returns to the fruit. We are brothers of the rainforest and have no fear of each other.
Suddenly I hear a pounding noise in the distance. It grows louder and louder and I begin to run as if it were pursuing me. My legs are churning, but I notice that I am no longer moving. I am running in place as the sound becomes deafening. My head throbs with each pulse of the booming noise. In pain I try to shout, but the uttering dies in my throat and comes out as a gurgle.
In the darkness I awoke to the sound of someone banging on my trailer door. I had a crushing hangover and my mouth tasted like old rubber boots. I rolled over in bed and struggled to focus on the glowing hands of the clock: two-fifteen ayem. The door banging resumed.
"Go away!" I hollered, pulling the blanket over my head.
"It's me," came a familiar voice. "Unlock the door and let me in."
"I'm sleeping, Juanito. Come back in the daytime."
"I have a letter for you."
Juanito and I shared the same post office box in town. "Slip it under the door."
"It's from your ex-wife."
That got my attention. I hadn't heard from Sharon since the divorce. I didn't expect to ever hear from her again after she married a rich developer in Kona. Why the hell would she write to me now?
"Come on, Dex. It's starting to rain."
I switched on the flashlight and reached for my pants. "If this is a joke, I swear you're a dead man."
When I opened the door, the flashlight beam fell on two bloodshot eyes set in a grinning Filipino face. "You're stoned," I grumbled.
"So what?" Juanito held up the letter. "Call me the mailman."
"You know the routine," I said. "Wait here."
I staggered sleepily to the shed behind the trailer. After filling the generator with gasoline, I jerked the starter chord and the lights went on in the trailer. This was the nightly ritual in Hapuu Acres, a remote rainforest community on the Big Island of Hawaii. The residents were a motley collection of bush rats who did without infrastructure in the bosom of tropical nature. We could live like bums and still pretend we were searching for paradise or going native.
Juanito had taken a seat at the kitchen table by the time I went back inside the trailer. He glanced around at the empty beer cans littering the floor and the dirty dishes piled high in the sink.
"Man, you live like a pig," he said. "You're gonna catch something if you don't clean up this place."
"I don't believe in the germ theory of disease," I said. "Only bad vibes can make you sick."
Juanito shook his head in disgust and handed me the letter.
"You went to the post office at two in the morning?"
"I was on my way home from a party," he explained.
"With Lani?" She was his wife.
"Never mind. Read your letter."
He started to roll a joint.
"Don't fire that up in here," I told him.
The letter was marked "urgent." I opened the envelope and began reading Sharon's ornate scrawl:
"Dear Dex, I realize I'm probably the last person on earth you might want to help, but the truth is I have no one else to turn to.
I assume you know about my husband's big development, the Paradise Bay Resort. At first Frank seemed happy that I wanted to get involved in the project, but after I discovered some disturbing facts, he began acting extremely paranoid. Now he seldom lets me out of his sight and I'm beginning to fear for my life.
DO NOT telephone me at our house in Kona. Frank would do something rash if he even suspected I was trying to contact a newspaper reporter who happened to be my ex-husband.
Call me Thursday between noon and 1 p.m. at my friend's clothing store in Kailua where Frank will think I'm shopping. Her telephone number is 328-1176. I will explain everything in detail when we talk.
Please don't let me down as you are the only person I can trust.
Sharon thought I was still a reporter. She must not have heard I was fired for going to work drunk and punching the managing editor when he threatened to have a security guard remove me from the newspaper office. She obviously didn't know I was now using a friend's license to work as a private investigator to keep myself in beer money.
When I looked up from the letter, Juanito was puffing on the joint. He offered me a toke.
"You know that stuff gives me a headache," I said.
"So, what did she say?"
"None of your business."
"I drive all the way over here in the middle of the night and this is the thanks I get?"
"Stop whining. I need you to take care of something Thursday."
"A repo in Hilo."
Juanito groaned. "Aw, man, I hate repos. The last time I almost got my head tore off."
"This car is owned by a little old lady."
"That's what you always say."
"You can make a hundred bucks for an hour's work." I fished the paperwork out of a drawer and slid it across the table. "I'm depending on you, Juanito."
I gave him a doleful look to make him feel guilty if he wanted to say no. He snatched the papers from the table and blew a stream of smoke in my direction.
"No more after this," he said.
"I won't ask," I lied.
At that point Tiggar, my yellow tomcat, squeezed through the front door and let out a hoarse meow. He had lost one eye long ago and that night his left ear was encrusted with dried blood.
"What happened to him?" Juanito asked.
"He likes to fight with feral cats."
"Does he ever win?"
"Not very often."
I got a cold beer from the refrigerator and poured some into a bowl on the floor. Tiggar began lapping it up as if it were milk.
"Never saw a cat drink beer," Juanito frowned.
"He has to. Otherwise, he gets the DTs."
"You mean he's an alcoholic?"
"It's a very sad story," I said. "His mother abandoned him when he was a kitten."
Juanito stared at me. "You're so full of shit."
I ushered him to the door. "Thanks for dropping by, but I have to get back to sleep now."
"You still have the hots for your ex, don't you?"
I pushed harder. "Drive safely."
"You're not fooling me, brah."
I had him on the porch by then. "Don't let the bedbugs bite."
"You're so full of shit," he repeated. Strolling to his car, he flipped the bird before he climbed in and started the engine.
From the window I watched the tail-lights of his car bounce down the dirt road until they disappeared in the darkness.
I opened another beer and re-read Sharon's letter. Tiggar jumped up on my lap and went to sleep as my eyes scrolled over each sentence, but I couldn't make sense of her cryptic message. I focused on the last word she had written before her name. It was love, the most loaded word in the English language.
I put Tiggar out on the porch and crawled into bed, leaving the generator to run out of gas instead of turning it off. I was counting on the monotonous hum of the machine to soothe me back to sleep.