Birds in Paradise

New Short Romantic Mystery!

Birds in Paradise
(An Aloha Pete Mystery)
By Dorothy St. James
Barking Dog Press
$0.99 ("LIKE" Dorothy's Facebook fan page for a FREE coupon code)

I rubbed my eyes not quite believing what I was seeing. What in the world was Aloha Pete doing up there? Up on the stage? With the hula dancers? And under a starry sky in the palm-tree lounge of a touristy hotel, at that?

Not that I minded seeing him dressed in a scanty leather loincloth and swinging around a wooden spear. Because, I didn’t. In fact, after seeing Pete’s darkly tanned chest I forgot all about the man with the white hat who had followed me into the hotel bar. Transfixed, I sank into the closest wicker chair, my gaze locked on the small wooden stage where three men—counting Pete—and four women were dancing.

I’d never seen Pete with his shoulder length silky black hair loose from the leather strap he wore. But oh, it was loose and beautiful now. And my heart couldn’t help but pound in concert with the primitive moves of the dance. The bounce-thrust-bounce of his hips in time to the deep thrumming of the drums.

A passing waiter placed a mai tai on the table in front of me. I gave him a grateful smile and then took a long sip of the sweet drink.

Okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking. But only if backed into a corner would I admit it out loud. I’ve had an elephant-sized crush on Pete from the first moment we met. He was a uniformed cop back then, and I was a fledgling pickpocket. Luckily for me, he had a soft spot for young women down on their luck. Instead of arresting me—like the honest cop he was—he gave me a handful of cash and put me in contact with his aunt, a dark leathery-faced woman everyone calls Mamma Jo. She manages one of the original low-rise hotels in Waikiki. In lieu of rent, she lets me clean the rooms.

Through her and the company she keeps, I fell into my current career. Private investigations. Who knew an ivy-league-dropout, beach-bum-failure would have a knack for solving crimes? I certainly didn’t.

Five years later, Pete has graduated from officer pounding the beat to respected detective for the Honolulu PD, and I’ve built a reputation as an effective private detective. Sometimes we find ourselves working the same cases.

It makes Pete grumble and swear in his native Hawaiian.

And still, I have that elephant-sized crush on him.

But nothing is going to happen.

It isn’t as if he even likes me.

Heck, I saved his life. Took a bullet in the shoulder to keep it from landing square in his chest just a few months ago. And what thanks did I get? A scowl. Oh, and he threatened to toss my butt in jail.

With that in mind, I knew I was wasting my time when the drums stopped beating. But my heart didn’t listen. It continued to pound. The lights came up and a line of tourists rushed the stage to have their pictures taken with the dancers. A hotel photographer with an instant camera was selling copies for ten dollars. It was an investment I was only too willing to make.

I hurried over to the stage and jumped into the line. I knew Pete wouldn’t recognize me right away. Thanks to my disguise I looked like any other tourist. A silky flower-print dress that didn’t quite reach my knees and a large straw hat with a matching band hid my blond hair and most of my face.

At the hotel, I blended quite well.

He gave me an empty smile, tossed his arm over my shoulder, and posed for the camera.

“A-lo-ha—” I tipped up the rim of my floppy hat so he could see my smiling face. “—Pete.”

His arm stiffened. “Kyra? What the hell are you doing here?”

Though I’m a firm believer in the truth—I swear, I am—I couldn’t help but remember Pete’s dire warning that if he found out I was back in the private detective business, and working without a license, he’d haul me down to the station and lock me away. Forever.

“Having a girl’s night out with some friends.” The lie came easily enough. I gave a nod toward a group of women who were giggling and a little more than halfway toward being plastered. “And you?” I lowered my voice. “Don’t tell me that you’re working undercover.”

His arm stiffened a bit more. “I’m doing a favor for my cousin. He has the flu and couldn’t find anyone to fill in for him.”

“I’m impressed.” I stepped aside so he could pose for a picture with a giggling teenage girl. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off Pete’s invitingly naked chest or wipe the goofy grin from my lips. “Really impressed.”

“Go home, Kyra.” He turned toward me and away from his flock of adoring fans. His scowl was back. “And forget that you saw any of this, okay?”

Out the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the man who’d been following me. He was heading across the bar and toward the beach.

“Sure,” I said, and gave into the urge to lay my hand flat on Pete’s smooth chest. “No problem.”

After a breathless moment I jumped off the stage, paid the cameraman for the picture of the all-too-serious Detective Pete in his native garb, and hurried after the other mystery man in my life. This was no time to play games, not with my heart, anyhow. Whether I had a license or not, I still had a job to do and a mountain of bills to pay.

“S-she’s been-been missing for nearly a week!” Anna Hartfield, a young woman with bleached blond hair and a perky little nose, collapsed into one of my office/living room/hotel bedroom chairs, and started weeping.

I handed her a tissue. “And this has never happened before?” I asked her, using my gentle, new-client voice.

She looked up at me, her eyes wide and somewhat confused. She dabbed her damp nose. “B-before?”

“Has your sister, Tina, ever run off before?” After a long silence I added, “With a man?”

Anna shook her head vigorously. “I told her it was a bad idea, but we weren’t making enough money with our waitressing jobs to cover the rent. Everything is so expensive out here on the islands. I told her that we should just go back to Iowa. But she wouldn’t listen. And now she’s gone.”

My stomach twisted. “What was your sister doing?”

“She—” Anna looked up at me suddenly, her eyes filled with terror. “She’s not like the others. She was just trying to make things work for us here. It was just until we found something better.”

“You need to tell me,” I urged her. “What was Tina doing?”

Anna continued to shake her head as pearly tears dripped down her cheeks.

“Was she dealing drugs? Robbery?” I swallowed hard and hoped it wasn’t what I feared it might be. “Prostitution?”

“She said she’d just do it a few times,” Anna sobbed. “She said she’d be careful and only get involved with rich tourists. I begged her not to go, but she went out anyhow and never came home.”

I closed my eyes for a moment. Two young, pretty girls had already gone missing in the past few weeks while peddling their trade. I’d poked around—strictly out of curiosity—after the second girl had disappeared. The next day my mysterious shadow man had entered my life. Hell yeah, I thought it was too much of a coincidence. Tug on the right chains and all sorts of creatures show up. But other than my new shadow, I was coming up empty-handed.

Like the other missing girls, Anna looked to be about eighteen. Her sister was a year older. They were both too young, too innocent to be sliding down that dark path. I know...I could have easily ended up there myself.

Five years ago, picking tourists pockets was barely getting me enough money for food. I was getting close to being desperate enough to agree to trade my body for a dry, safe place to live. Sleeping on the grass in a park loses its luster pretty fast, even in paradise.

My heart ached for the two sisters. I reached out and gave Anna’s hand a squeeze. “I’ll see what I can do to find her.”

“I-I can’t pay you,” Anna stumbled over her words. “At least, not yet. But I don’t know what else to do. The police, they don’t seem concerned.”

I’m sure the police were concerned, but in a case like this one there wasn’t too much they could do other than wait for a body to show up.

I, on the other hand, could devote all my time to focus on this one case. Not getting paid for it would hurt. But there was no way I was going to turn Anna away.

“Have you called your parents yet?” I asked softly. “You should let them know what’s going on.”

She agreed to call her parents only after I promised to talk with them and assure them that I would do everything possible to find their daughter.

That evening I hit the streets with my butt squeezed into a black spandex skirt that, and I’m not kidding you, I’d bought thinking it was a headband. My generous upper parts were barely covered by an electric blue halter-top, and I’d gobbed on enough makeup that I when I passed Mamma Jo in the hallway on the way out, she introduced herself as if I was a new guest.

Gad, I was uncomfortable parading down the street in my rubber flip-flops while fighting the urge to tug at my skirt. Rule number one to undercover work: blend. On the glitzy sidewalks of Waikiki in front the high-priced storefronts of Channel and Versace, where I liked to conduct my PI business, this outfit stuck out like a sunburned Midwesterner. Unfortunately, where I was headed I would look conservative.

Daisy, a small but tough, oriental woman who couldn’t have been much older than me, was the first to greet me when I stepped off the bus. She followed me as I wandered a short way down a narrow alleyway where a group of ladies were standing around, waiting for men to find them.

Okay, Daisy hadn’t exactly greeted me. She’d growled and displayed her pretty row of white teeth, save for one that had been chipped during a violent encounter her first time on the streets.

“Did Mamma Jo finally kick you out of your cushy nest?” she asked me.

“Maybe she’s working for the police now,” a dark eyed beauty I didn’t recognize said. The girl sounded scared. Several of the other girls started to crowd around.

An election was coming up, and that meant the police would be put under extra pressure to clean up these back streets. I didn’t blame the politicians, the police, or the women peddling their bodies for that matter. They were all doing what they thought was necessary. I blamed the men who paid for the women. Heck, I wouldn’t mind seeing any of them hung up by their—

But I’m straying from the main thrust of the story.

Brandi, a plump bleached blonde who had to be close to fifty, pushed a brochure into my hand. “It’s not too late,” she said quietly. “There is help for you. All you have to do is ask.”

I glanced down at the paper she’d handed me. It was a flier from a local church.

“You’ve been saved?” I asked her, somewhat surprised. Brandi had been a fixture out here. The young ones thought of her as ‘the original hooker’.

“I can’t believe how stupid I’ve been all these years.” She puffed on a cigarette. “These girls, they don’t have to make the same mistakes I have. There are other options.”

“I know. I was lucky to find one early on,” I said, and handed her back the brochure.

She blew out a stream of smoke and shook her head. “Then what’cha you doing here?”

I held up my hands and gave her a wan smile. “I’m just looking to talk.”

“Talk. Right. And those are your talkin’ clothes?”

I rooted around in my purse for the photo of Tina that her sister had provided. “They sure are, if you’re willing to talk about her,” I said after pushing the picture into her hands.

Brandi scrunched up her nose and made a face.

“She belonged in the tourist areas. This street ain’t a pretty place. Not a place for beginners. I told her to repent. To save her soul. But she told me she couldn’t. Not until she got enough money. Like money is more important than salvation.” Brandi shook her head. “Poor stupid kid.”

“We all start out that way,” I pointed out.

“What you whispering about over here?” Daisy pushed me out of the way and snatched the photo from Brandi. “Who’s that?”

“Tina,” I said. “Her sister told me that she was working in this area a few nights ago. She’s gone missing.”

Daisy turned the photo on its side and squinted. “Why you care?”

“Because she can’t be much older than eighteen, and she can’t survive out here alone.”

“I was doing fine on my own ever since I was fourteen,” Daisy said. A couple of men were heading in their direction. “And I’ve got money to make.”

Taking a gamble that Daisy did know Tina, I grabbed her arm. “I’ll give you $50 to stay and talk with me for a half-hour.”

I had to pay up front. And the two men were greeted by a couple of other girls. Daisy shrugged and turned her gaze back to the photo.

“I told her to go work in Waikiki. But she said she’d heard about the police and didn’t want to risk getting caught. Most of the business has gone inside nowadays, anyhow. It’s slow out here.”

“So she stayed?”

Daisy grimaced. “We didn’t make her welcome.”

“I gave her a brochure. She needed guidance,” Brandi said, her voice rising. “You all need guidance.” She raced over to where the two men were talking with the girls. “Repent. Turn away from your evil ways.”

The men took off running. Alone.

I bit back a cheer. Good for Brandi and her new goal in life! The girls who’d just lost business didn’t share my enthusiasm. They started cursing up a blue streak.

Daisy laughed. “Between Brandi, the police, and the indoor establishments with their influx of young Vietnamese imports, I’m wasting my time out here. We all are.”

“So why don’t you look for something better?”

Daisy shrugged. “I suppose I will sooner or later.”

“Do you remember if Tina had any luck finding a man up with the other night?”

Daisy closed her eyes. After a long silence she said, “I don’t know. I want to say no. I don’t remember seeing her walk off with any of the guys. It would have caused an outburst, you know, with the other girls. But I don’t remember her hanging around all night, either. Perhaps she found somewhere else to work?”

Before leaving, I questioned the other girls. None of them were as helpful as Daisy. With nothing better to work with, I visited a few other spots in the downtown that night, talking with the women, trying to find out if Daisy was right. Did Tina try and find another place to work?

By sunrise, I felt as if I’d been down every street in Honolulu, and no one other than Daisy and her friends had recognized Tina’s photo.

Exhausted and feeling more than a little discouraged, I went home and collapsed in my bed. Less than a half-hour passed before the sound of someone trying to break down my door woke me up with a jolt.

As soon as I unlatched the lock, the door swung open and bounced violently off the wall. A wild-eyed Aloha Pete thundered into the room. He grabbed my arm with bruising strength.

“I thought we were friends,” he shouted as he took in every scanty inch of the street-wear I hadn’t bothered to remove. “More than friends.”

My heart stuttered. Had he come to the same conclusion I had ages ago? And had he found being apart from me for even a moment longer unbearable? Was he truly expressing an interest in making our relationship more personal? More intimate?

“Y-yes?” I said, my mouth going dry as my hopes soared.

His voice deepened. “You’re my ‘ohana. My family.”

“Oh,” I said and rubbed my blurry and, suddenly, teary eyes. “Family. Like a sister.”

He nodded.

I huffed and tried to pull out of his bruising hold.

“For God’s sake,” he said, and tightened his grip on me. “Put on some decent clothes so I can take you out to breakfast.” Very brotherly sounding, I was forced to admit to my breaking heart.

“Let go of me, then.” I batted at his muscular arm. “I can’t get dressed with you swinging me about like a broom.”

“No, I suppose you can’t,” he conceded, and backed himself into the hallway. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

Birds in Paradise
(An Aloha Pete Mystery)
By Dorothy St. James
Barking Dog Press
$0.99 ("LIKE" Dorothy's Facebook fan page for a FREE coupon code)
Available from Smashwords, Kindle, coming soon to all major e-book retailers.

~Dorothy St. James
Author of FLOWERBED OF STATE, Book 1 in the White House Gardener Mysteries
May 2011, Berkley Prime Crime
"...a bright blossom in the garden of cozy mysteries." ~ Sherry Lewis, Mystery Author

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