The flight to Honolulu took more time and considerably more money than Russell had predicted. Pan American’s “Clipper” flying boat had left the mainland precisely at 3:00 PM and landed fifteen hours later—three in the morning, local time. Despite the hour, he stepped off the plane into a sauna blast, temperatures surely no lower than the mid-sixties and a relative humidity of, at his best guess, just under two thousand percent.
A pretty young mongoose in a Pan Am uniform stood at the end of the gangway, putting a necklace of flowers around everyone’s neck as they passed by. “Aloha,” she kept repeating. “Aloha.”
Russell tried to accept the token with passable grace, but touched his fingers lightly to her arm. “Miss, where do I go to catch a flight to Uli Hahape from here?”
“Ask in the terminal, sir.” She turned away from him, smiling at the gawking family of wolf tourists right behind. “Aloha.”
He took a moment to look southward, past the plane. Ocean at night. Check. He hurried on inside, heading to the Pan Am counter.
The counter was closed. Everything was closed.
Right. Middle of the night. He sighed, starting to follow the crowd toward the baggage claim area and presumably waiting taxis. When he saw a little information desk, staffed by a mongoose who might have been the stewardess’s twin sister, he detoured quickly over. Instead of a uniform she wore a floral print dress similar to the ones Kailani wore, and if he didn’t have Kailani to compare her to he’d have said she wore it quite well. “Ma’am.” He strode up. “Ma’am, I’m—”
She smiled far too brightly for anyone to smile at 3:23. “Aloha!”
“Fine, aloha. Ah, I need to know when the earliest connecting flight to Uli Hahape is.”
“A flight to Uli Hahape?” She lifted her brows. “You, too? When did it become such a tourist destination? You can catch a flight from here to Lihue, on Kauai, and then charter a boat to Uli Hahape.”
Him, too? What did that mean? “What’s the earliest flight, then?”
“Are you with the…” She checked her notes. “Bennett party?”
Oh, damn. “No.”
“The eight o’clock flight tomorrow is booked for them, I’m afraid, so let’s see if I can book you on the noon flight, yah?” She flipped through a clipboard in front of her.
“It’s completely booked?”
“A gentleman on this flight asked to book all the remaining seats under that name. He said he has a large party joining him from a flight arriving later this morning.”
“The next flight shouldn’t be in until this time tomorrow. I know there’s only one daily international flight here!”
“He said it’s a charter. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but he had the money.”
Russell frowned and glanced toward the baggage area, searching out of the corner of his eye. He hadn’t seen anyone familiar on the plane, but now that he thought about it, that burly wolf was wearing a business outfit just as out of place here as his was—he wasn’t here on vacation, either.
He lowered his voice, leaning toward the attendant. “I have an important gift I need to get to my friend, Princess Kailani. I’m sure that when we talked a few months ago she told me there was seaplane service.”
“There’s a mail run, yah, but not passenger service.” She tapped her pen against the clipboard, making a soft chittering noise under her breath, then looked up at Russell more directly. “You’re friends with the princess? Are you with the people building the hotel there?”
He looked steadily into her eyes. “No.”
She tapped her pen a few more seconds, then started scribbling on a notepad. “Tomorrow morning, you want to go to Ke’ehi Harbor just east of the airport and go to this berth. Ask for Danny. Tell him Kapua sent you, and tell him what you told me, yah?”
Russell smiled, taking the note. “Thank you very much, Kapua.”
He made his way outside the terminal building. As stunning as Hawaii was in photographs, the airport might as well have been in Southern California, with low-slung buildings and palm trees and a highway that no doubt aspired to grow up to be a freeway in a decade or two.
He walked up to an available taxi and clambered into the back with his small bag. “I don’t suppose there are any all-night diners here, are there?”
“I know a good coffee shop downtown, boss.” The otter behind the wheel grinned. “Don’t want to be dropped off at your hotel first?”
“I don’t have a hotel yet. This is a rather spur of the moment trip.”
He pulled out, heading toward the highway. “The islands sometimes do that to people.”
The driver grinned again, looking in the rearview mirror. “Call them. You hear the call, you drop everything and go. You might not ever go back.”
“Oh, I don’t think this trip is that mystical and romantic.” Russell sighed, looking out the window at the passing terrain. It still reminded him of Southern California, but what Los Angeles had to forcibly wrench out of reluctant desert was the natural order here. “Possibly that insane, though.”
“It’s not insane if you find what you’re looking for, boss.”
Russell grinned wryly. “Assuming what I’m looking for is interested in speaking to me.”
The airport didn’t as much sit on the edge of Honolulu as jutted into it; it took barely only a minute for the surroundings to blossom into a true city—not huge, but bigger than he’d been expecting, more modern, more…American. He found it all both reassuring and disappointing. Unlike big American cities, though, just about everything was closed. They only passed by two pedestrians the whole way.
The taxi pulled to the curb in front of a restaurant with wide plate glass windows looking out on the sidewalk, glowing neon sign over the door reading Lana’s Fountain. “Here we are. Try the loco moco.”
The what? “Thank you.” Russell climbed out, paying the fare and tip.
“Thank you, boss. I hope when you find her, she’s interested.” The driver grinned again and pulled out.
Russell lifted a brow, then headed on in.
Taking a booth by a window, he scanned the single-sheet menu. Cheap prices, and a curious mix of American and Asian dishes. Chicken teriyaki, chicken katsu, beef short ribs, Portuguese sausage; something called “kalua pig”; dishes served with sides of rice and macaroni salad; and the “loco moco” the cabbie had recommended, with no description beyond its name. When the waitress, a bored-looking vixen with an air more expatriate than native, came by, he ordered it without even asking what it was. He’d been flying without a net for the last day, so why worry at this point?
He looked down the street, eyes settling on a huge clock face over a sign reading BISHOP NATIONAL BANK OF HAWAII. Nearly four in the morning, which made it nearly seven in the morning back in Palo Morado. He’d be awake by now on a normal workday—which today was. He’d requested yesterday off, but not today. Or tomorrow. Or the next day. Bennett wouldn’t have to pull strings to get him fired from the library—he could do it well enough without help.
“Oh, Russell, what’s wrong with you?” he murmured aloud, slumping back in the bench.
And worse, Bennett knew what Russell was up to—the rabbit was already trying to make it difficult for him to get to Uli Hahape. But what was he planning? He couldn’t delay him long enough to finish the hotel. Just throw Russell in a pit somewhere? Kill him? Maybe just steal the injunction documents. The otters weren’t kindly disposed to him now, and without those papers he’d have no chance of convincing King Aremana that Bennett hadn’t already won. Yes, that had to be the plan. He wasn’t just racing Bennett’s people to get to Uli Hahape first, he was racing them to avoid theft and injury. Or worse.
So. He’d come to Hawaii to race thugs who meant to do him harm to get to a girl who’d all but promised to do him harm, with no guarantee the effort would pay off even if everything went perfectly. No matter what happened, he’d have no job to go back to and he’d have burned through more of his cash than he wanted to think about. In less than twenty-fours, he’d set fire to a gigantic chunk of his life for reasons which from the strangely clear vantage point of a Honolulu diner booth seemed extremely thin, and what the hell was loco moco? God, he could have just ordered pancakes, couldn’t he? All diners had to have pancakes—
“Here you are.” The waitress cut into his thoughts, setting down a glass of iced tea, a plate, a napkin, and silverware, somehow all in the same motion.
He looked at the plate. A hamburger patty sat on a bed of rice, drizzled all over with brown gravy. On top of the patty sat a perfect over-easy fried egg. “Thank you.” He tried to keep the dubiousness out of his voice.
The first bite was just about what he’d expect from a forkful of rice, beef, egg and gravy, yet somehow it all worked. While he wasn’t convinced he liked it, he didn’t dislike it, either.
So. Hawaii. Nearly everyone’s dream but his. Not that he’d been against going, but…it wasn’t on the list. He had so much else to do first.
He’d had so much else to do first.
This was the point, he suspected, he was supposed to have a sudden realization about how freeing this all was. He supposed jumping off a bridge was immensely freeing, too, until you smacked into the water. Sighing, he forced himself to empty his mind and just think about the food. He still wasn’t sure he liked it, but it only took him a few minutes to thoroughly clean the plate.
When the waitress came back, he asked, “When does Ke’ehi Harbor open?”
“It’s the ocean,” the vixen said, looking at him as if he’d just asked her to explain how doors work. “It’s always open.”
“I meant when you could…charter a boat, or whatever one does.”
“Whenever the boat captain gets there.” She headed off.
“Right. Thanks.” She’d refilled his tea, at least. He stared out the window, waiting for the first sign of sunrise.
He had to give Honolulu’s waterfront one thing right off the bat compared to San Francisco’s: even just after sunrise, the breeze felt warm through his fur. He’d enjoyed the beach as a cub, but after moving up the coast he’d all but lost interest in the ocean, all thanks to the strangely frigid Northern California winds. It could be seventy degrees out and sunny, and you’d still somehow feel like you needed a lined jacket. But he’d availed himself of a public restroom to change into something more casual earlier—khaki shorts and an unbuttoned polo—and wasn’t cold at all. And maybe he looked slightly less out of place.
While he’d expected the main harbor to be big, it looked every bit as big as Oakland’s, equipped for both cargo and passenger steamers, a huge clock tower standing watch over it all. Ke’ehi Harbor sat just northwest of it, and while it was smaller it still took him nearly a half-hour to find the berth Kapua had directed him toward. He’d started hunting in the wrong place: he’d been looking at the boats. Danny’s vessel was a seaplane.
At least, he assumed it was Danny’s. Whoever Danny was, there was no sign of him yet today. Well, perhaps a single sign, a faded one in front of the plane reading “Pono Tours.” No other information, including hours. The plane looked like it could hold four people besides the pilot, as long as the three in the back were small.
Nothing to do now but wait. He walked back a few yards to a weather-stained wooden bench, set his bag down on it, then set himself down on it, leaning back and closing his eyes.
Russell hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep until the loud burst of a nearby engine brought him back to groggy wakefulness. A little panic cut in—the engine wasn’t Danny’s plane, was it? No, it was another seaplane tied up at the next pier. But someone stood by the Pono Tours plane, leaning over it, cleaning the windshield.
It didn’t seem as uncomfortably hot and wet today as it had yesterday. Maybe the winds had shifted, or maybe he’d already become a little acclimated. He stood up, grabbing his bag, and headed toward the mongoose. If he was Kapua’s brother, he had only passing family resemblance; he must have weighed twice what she did, while only standing two or three inches taller. He wore khaki shorts and an unbuttoned floral print shirt.
“Hello,” Russell called as he approached.
The mongoose turned and waved with a bright grin. “Aloha. Looking for a tour?”
“Well, more a charter. Are you Danny? Kapua said you might be able to help.”
He squinted, looking Russell up and down. “You a friend of Kapua’s?”
“I just met her this morning when I flew in. I need to get to Uli Hahape, and I need to get there faster than I can do by island-hopping on boats.”
Danny rubbed his chin. “It’s one of the prettiest little islands around, but there’s not much there, you know. Not until the big hotel opens.”
“But that’s the whole point. I have to get a message to the islanders there about that hotel. They don’t want it, and from the way Kapua acted yesterday I don’t think she does, either. Do you?”
The mongoose shrugged. “The way of the world. They say it’s not a good deal, but it’s still a deal.”
“It’s fraudulent. The man building the hotel—he cheated and hoped nobody would notice. He doesn’t have a right to build it, but someone has to bring that message to Uli Hahape, or he’s going to get away with it.”
Danny bit his lip and fell silent. Russell hoped he hadn’t made a dreadful mistake by laying all his cards on the table so quickly. Maybe a lot of islanders thought the hotel was a fine idea. Maybe Bennett had already—
“So you’re a man on a mission, yah?” the mongoose finally said. “I like that. I’d like to help. But you gotta know.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “This is going to sound superstitious, but I swear it’s not, okay? I don’t think the island goddess there is happy lately. She’s letting them build the hotel because her people keep their word, but she’s not happy. They say she’s real hard to provoke, but if you manage to do it you are in a lot of trouble.”
Russell ran a hand through his hair. “No. That doesn’t sound superstitious to me. See, I…know her.”
The mongoose’s eyes widened.
“And we won’t be provoking her.” It wasn’t much of a lie if you accepted the implied any further. “But if you think she isn’t happy now, think how much less happy she’ll be if she finds out she didn’t need to let them build the hotel, and she didn’t get that message because I wasn’t able to get it to her and her people.”
Danny bit his lip, tail twitching behind him. “Okay,” he finally said. “I’ll get you there.”
Russell let out the breath he’d been holding and beamed. “Thank you.”
“I have to finish taking care of Lily.” He jerked his thumb at the plane. “Cleaning and doing the pre-flight check and stuff, yah? It’ll take fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.”
“All right. Do you know if the concession stand is open yet?”
The cougar nodded, and strolled back along the pier. It’d take nearly fifteen minutes to get there, get some coffee in a to-go cup, and head back to Danny’s plane.
The concession stand was open, with a short line. The server was the first sullen Hawaiian he’d met, which felt strangely reassuring. The coffee, though, was some of the best he’d had—especially surprising for something served in a paper cup.
He’d made it about halfway back to Danny’s plane when he walked into someone approaching from the side, hard. “Excuse me, I—” Russell had barely recognized the man as an all too familiar wolf when the punch came.
The cougar stumbled back into a matronly tiger woman, getting his balance just in time to realize his assailants, plural, were two familiar wolves.
Russell backed away; they followed. One made a feint toward him. As he stepped away, the second grabbed the cougar’s bag, trying to tug it out of his hand. “Give it to us and we won’t have to hurt you.”
The cougar grunted. He might be in good shape for a librarian, but the wolves were in good shape for bodyguards; his grip would only hold another couple of seconds.
Russell threw the coffee in the wolf’s face. He snarled, letting go. The cougar immediately swung the bag hard at the other wolf, sending him staggering.
Then he ran. He ran faster than he’d run in years. As he leapt onto to the pier he started screaming. “Danny! Start the engine!”
The mongoose popped his head out of the plane, looking puzzled.
“Start the engine!”
At the same time Danny called out, “That guy has a gun!” somebody clocked Russell in the back of the head. Everything went slow-motion: the sprawl, the slide forward, losing the grip on the bag, rolling onto his back. Time turned back on with a splitting headache and both wolves standing overhead. As it turned out, both those guys had guns.
The one whose face still dripped with coffee kicked him in the side hard, yanking the bag up and away from him.
“You’ll never get away with this! There’s a huge crowd!” he wheezed.
“A huge crowd of tourists who ain’t watching, and won’t look over if we don’t make noise by shooting you.” The other wolf put his gun away. “Check if it’s in there.”
The first unzipped the bag and rifled through it, pulling out the manila envelope. “Got it.”
“Thanks for your cooperation, cat.” The second one kicked the bag into the water. “Oops.”
Russell made a grab for it, too late. He watched his clothes—and toiletries and passport—sink into the water as the wolves walked off.
“Aiâ!” Danny put a hand on his shoulder. A thin line of bubbles rose from the bag as it sank. “I can get a hook for that. What did they take?”
The cougar grimaced, wobbling to his feet and putting a hand to his side. That was going to bruise. “The proof about the hotel.”
Danny’s ears folded down. “Oh.”
He closed his eyes, thinking furiously. Bennett could have just sent those two goons on the Pan Am flight, but he sent one ahead to book a flight. Why? In part just to make it harder for Russell to get to the island, but he couldn’t have known they’d be successful in mugging him for the papers. That meant Bennett had yet another plan, and from appearances it involved bringing a group with him that he wanted to make sure was on the island first. That meant Russell needed to beat him—
He opened his eyes. No, it meant exactly the opposite.
“When’s the earliest someone taking the charter to Kauai from here would be able to get to Uli Hahape?”
“About half past noon.”
“That’s when we need to get there, then.”
Russell nodded. “Yes. I’m sure.” He hesitated. “This may get more dangerous than I thought. If you won’t take me, I’ll understand.”
Danny seemed to seriously consider that for a few seconds, then shook his head. “No, now it’s too interesting. And we got time to fish your clothes out.”