Albert Tucher’s short-story, “The Forgettable Man” is the runner-up in the third annual Lawyerist Short-Fiction Contest.
“Nice office, Counselor.”
Agnes Rodrigues opened her eyes. She didn’t know the voice, but it was male. So was the silhouette with the afternoon sun blazing behind it.
She stopped herself from reaching for her cover up. If he found her bikini unprofessional, that was his problem. She raised the back of her adjustable beach chair, but she skipped the courtesy of removing her sunglasses.
“And you are?”
Without the halo effect she would have recognized the most notorious property developer to land in Hawaii in years. But she already knew what was on his mind, and it wasn’t real estate.
“How did you find me?”
“I asked around.”
He meant the police, who knew her routine. They seldom refused people like Zellinger, and if helping him also complicated her life, they would do it with a smile. She made a mental note to tear some cop a new one when she got the chance.
Zellinger got down on one knee next to her chair, as if he planned to propose marriage. Some beach-goers were already looking sideways at him, which could get embarrassing. She didn’t know names, but they were all regulars.
Even without his celebrity he would have attracted stares. His business suit might be the first to appear on Hapuna, or any beach in Hawaii, since the end of the steamship era.
“I want you to stop representing Peter Sobczak.”
“That’s not open to discussion.”
“I don’t care. Drop him.”
“You know I’m not going to do that. If nothing else, the judge wouldn’t let me.”
“You can figure out a way. In fact, I have some ideas.”
“I’m not listening.”
“Let’s go next door and talk,” he said, as if she hadn’t spoken.
If he had found her on this beach, he also knew that she was staying at the nearby resort. She could assume that the cops had told him about her weekends.
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“That bastard killed my daughter.”
“That’s for the legal system to decide. I’m part of it.”
“God help you if you know where he is.”
“I don’t respond to threats, and they’re unnecessary. I’m an officer of the court. I can’t help him remain a fugitive.”
“You’re trying to tell me that you didn’t help him run?”
“His family hired me. I’ve never met him.”
She had been on the way to the police station to meet Peter Sobczak, when word reached her that the cops couldn’t find him to arrest him. A week later, nothing suggested that he had managed to get off the island.
It was called the Big Island for a reason. He wasn’t the only fugitive lurking in the vast eastern rainforest, far from the expensive Kohala resorts and even farther from Honolulu, but the others lacked his notoriety. Everyone was following the story of Deirdre Zellinger, whose body had come to rest in the Hilo morgue after washing up on a beach near the active lava flow.
Someone had strangled her, and everyone’s leading suspect was her boyfriend Peter Sobczak.
Zellinger reached into his breast pocket and took out a folded sheet of paper, which he dropped in her lap.
“This is contemptible,” said Zellinger. “It’s beneath even a criminal lawyer.”
She picked the sheet up and read the laser-printed text. It didn’t take long.
“Hawaii for the Hawaiians. Haole out. Deirdre Zellinger is just the begining.”
“You’re right,” she said. “It is pathetic. If I were going to fabricate evidence, I hope I’d do a better job. Nobody around here could fall for that nonsense.”
“There are definitely native Hawaiian militants who want everyone else out of the islands, but Puna is the last place they’d start.”
He waited for her explanation. At least he was listening instead of bullying.
“For one thing, there are a lot of people in Puna who would react very poorly if you tried to kick them out. I’m talking about pakalolo farmers and meth dealers with the firepower to make their point.”
She looked again at the semiliterate flyer.
“Where did you get this?”
“Somebody slipped it under the door to my condo.”
“How did they find you? I assume you take precautions.”
“Of course. The condo belongs to a blind corporation. But don’t tell me you couldn’t find me.”
“I probably could, but I don’t have time for games.”
“So you paid someone.”
“My investigator also has better things to do.”
“I’m warning you to extricate yourself.”
“Even if I could somehow get out of it, the judge would appoint him another lawyer.”
“Who wouldn’t be you. I’ve looked into this. You’re the one I’m concerned about.”
His expression said that he had revealed too much. Without another word he waded away through the sand. He would have to empty his thousand-dollar loafers when he reached the parking lot.
She sat scolding herself silently. He wasn’t the only one who had let something slip. Now he knew that she might resort to a Big Island version of the venerable “Some other dude did it” defense. In this scenario Deirdre Zellinger would play the innocent who wandered into a drug dealer’s territory and paid with her life. Any island resident knew it could happen.
Agnes stayed on the beach until the sun did its usual spectacular disappearing act. Then she returned to the hotel, where she ordered room service.
After dinner she took her time getting ready. She dressed in a while halter dress with matching sandals that she had brought back from Los Angeles. She got the best results when she impersonated a visitor from the mainland. If she looked too local, men concluded that she was a pro.
In the doorway of the bar she paused and waited for the heads to swivel. They always did. She entered and made for a vacant stool. By the time she reached her seat, she had identified a possibility for the evening, sitting alone at a table. She climbed onto the stool and faced the mirror.
She always gave a man a chance to take the initiative, but she knew that her intimidation factor was high. Often she had to walk straight to him and say, “Buy me a drink, and we’ll see what happens from there.”
This time a second man slid onto the stool to her left. He should have waited for an invitation, but at least he wasn’t timid. She checked the mirror. The first prospect was watching. If he was disappointed, it was his problem for not moving faster.
She evaluated the new man. A few years older than her thirty-eight, lean and dark. His aloha shirt revealed veined forearms that testified to serious gym time, and any modeling agent in Los Angeles would be happy to send him out for rugged outdoorsman jobs.
Not forgettable enough.
“Can I get that for you?”
He pointed at her bourbon rocks.
He ordered the same for himself. They touched glasses.
“You’re gorgeous. I’m guessing Portuguese with a touch of Japanese or Filipino.”
That settled it. He knew his way around the island too well.
“Close enough,” she said.
“So, what do you do, Agnes?”
“It pays five hundred an hour.”
She swiveled and slid off the stool.
“Think about it and get back to me.”
She felt his eyes on her back, as she looked for the forgettable man. He was right at the table where she had left him.
“Buy me a drink, and we’ll see what happens from there.”
“That’s a plan,” he said.
At six o’clock on Sunday morning Agnes handed ten dollars to the parking valet. As she waited for him to return with her Camry, she turned her phone back on and checked her voicemail. A message had come in late the previous night.
“It’s Peter Sobczak.”
He paused as if her recorded voice might react to the news.
“I know I have to come in. I just…panicked. I don’t trust the cops. And I know Walter Zellinger is on the island.”
More dead air.
“I’ll be at the lava at Kalapana tonight. There should be a crowd. I’ll find you there, and I’ll come in with you. If you have to talk to the cops, tell them I ditched my cell phone, which I plan to do right now. They won’t find me until tonight. That’s all, I guess.”
Agnes thought for a moment. This could be a little awkward, although she could establish that she did not know his whereabouts. She dialed a number that she had called before, but never stored in her contacts.
She pictured the detective, and as always she spared a moment on imagining him as a compact, fifty-ish stranger in a bar. It would never happen with a cop, and she would never give him a hint about his place in her fantasies.
“Peter Sobczak wants to surrender. I’ll bring him in tonight.”
“What’s wrong with right now?”
“I don’t know where he is.”
“It’s anything but. He called my voice mail last night.”
That was why she had called him of all the cops in Hawaii County. He knew why she turned her phone off on Saturday night. He also knew that her word was good, and that she would give him nothing more. Any other cop would get tiresome about it.
The next number she did have in her contacts. Enrique Rasay was the investigator she had praised to Zellinger.
“Where are you?”
He sounded awake, but that was expected on this island, where the nightlife was minimal. And as far as she knew, he didn’t sleep.
He lived in Pahoa, the big city of the Puna district. Its three thousand residents easily gave it that distinction. The town was most of the way to Kalapana.
He listened to her story without comment.
“I’ll be there around five this afternoon,” she said. “Until then keep looking for him.”
Agnes drove uphill toward highway 19. She had planned to return to Hilo by way of the high country town of Waimea, where she would stop for breakfast. Forgettable Man from last night was unlikely to be there.
But now she had a lot of time to fill, and she changed her itinerary. She passed the turnoff for Waimea and continued south toward Kona. There was some decent shopping there for someone who knew where to look, and everything was open on Sunday for the visitors. Hilo closed up as tight as any place in the Bible Belt.
Past Kona the road wound its way through a long series of small towns. The speed limits dropped, but the ocean views improved.
Late that afternoon she turned south onto 130 toward Pahoa. After she bypassed the town, the traffic dwindled to one oncoming vehicle every few minutes.
Enrique’s driveway was an unmarked gap in the dense roadside tangle of ferns and bamboo, Sub-tropical trees loomed overhead. His house was typical for the region, a white box with slatted windows and a tank on the roof for rainwater. Out back a generator growled. Like many Puna residents he was invisible on tax and utility maps.
He heard her Camry, and his welterweight physique appeared in the doorway. Enrique could hang out with the mokes on Isaac Hale Beach without getting punched in the face, and then he could write a report that deserved a binder with a corporate logo.
“He’ll be waiting for the crowds,” she said. “We should leave in about an hour.”
“I think people have been helping stay out there. For a guy who hasn’t been here long, he’s well liked.”
“So what was this business he and Deirdre were going to start?”
“I can just hear her father on that topic.”
“They were supposed to look at some land for sale, right near Kalapana. They never showed, and she washed up on the beach the next day.”
Agnes went back outside to her Camry and opened the trunk. She took out her hiking boots and a shopping bag with a backup outfit that she carried for grubby jobs. She carried them into the house and headed for Enrique’s bathroom. She could have used his bedroom, but it had history that neither of them needed to bring up. As she changed into jeans, a tank top and her boots, she heard him starting his Wrangler.
When she came out again, he stopped and looked. She couldn’t read his expression, but she had an idea of what he was thinking. He always saw her dressed for the courthouse, but on one occasion she had started in a suit and ended naked.
She climbed into the passenger seat. Enrique put the Jeep in drive and lurched onto the highway. With the sparse traffic, the odds were in their favor, but Agnes still closed her eyes. They drove in silence for several minutes.
“Something I need to tell you,” he said.
His tone made her turn her head and look at him. He kept his eyes on the road.
“I’m going to the mainland.”
“You’ve earned a vacation.”
“I mean, I’m going there.”
She realized that she was staring a hole in him, but she couldn’t stop.
“Did Zellinger threaten you?”
“I don’t threaten. You know that.”
“I’m sorry. Of course I do.”
“Maybe I’ve got island fever.”
It happened, even to people who had never lived anywhere else.
“Where are you going?”
“Vegas, to start, at least. I’ve got cousins there.”
So did a lot of people in Hawaii.
“Can you finish the case?”
It was a single syllable, but it carried a lot of baggage. Agnes had the feeling that she had let him down in some way. The silence grew, as she groped for something to say. Asking him for details about his plans would sound like begging.
She lacked the experience or the temperament for that.
“Do we know how he met Deirdre?” she said.
She tried not to wince. Was hiding behind the case the best she could do?
Apparently it was, because the silence grew. She was about to bring up the weather or local politics, when he broke first.
“She was window shopping in Pahoa,” he said, “and he just started talking to her. They had lunch in Luquin’s. You believe she’d never had Mexican food?”
“Sure. With that father of hers running her life?”
“She’s there in this perfect white summer dress, matching bag and shoes. He teased her about it.”
Among the farmers, survivalists, drug dealers, and aging holdovers from the 1960’s in Pahoa it would stand out.
“He’d never seen like anything like her.”
“Sounds like he was smitten from the get-go.”
There was silence for a mile or two.
“I guess she learned to blend in,” Agnes said. “You know that picture they keep printing in the papers? She looks hardcore Puna in that one.”
“You’re doing pretty well in that department,” he said, looking at her boots again.
“I shave my armpits.”
She pictured Walter Zellinger in his suit. His daughter’s transformation to hippie chick might have enraged him almost as much as her death.
The darkness was complete. They continued on 130 to the end of the highway, which had once stretched much farther. In 1990 the spreading lava had cut the road short. Visitors who wanted to see the current eruption could proceed beyond the barrier and drive to a county-maintained parking area.
Enrique found a space for his Wrangler and took a flashlight from a bracket under the dash. He got out and she followed.
As they hiked toward the ocean, the road turned even rougher. They weren’t alone. Dozens of flashlights like Enrique’s hovered like fireflies. A level field of volcanic rock spread out around them. In the darkness the landscape looked Pre-Cambrian, but it was only a little more than twenty years old. Farther ahead, human figures performed like shadow puppets against a glowing orange backdrop.
It was all eerie enough, but the strangest sight wasn’t the work of nature. New houses rested like mushrooms on the black rock. Agnes knew that the congealed lava had not canceled the ownership of the land underneath, and that many of the residents had felt defiant enough to rebuild their homes on the moonscape.
As she approached the viewing area, Agnes looked from face to face on the platform and around it at ground level. She didn’t see Peter Sobczak, but he might be hard to spot in the crowd.
That was probably his plan.
Soon she realized that people were looking at her expectantly. She had somehow joined the line, and it was her turn to climb onto the platform. She shrugged and mounted the steps. With a dozen other visitors she looked toward the ocean.
It was impressive, she had to admit. The lava flow advanced across their field of vision. It moved no faster than she could walk, but it promised to grind up everything in its path, which looked as wide as an ocean. A dark lattice of new rock clung like scaffolding to the glow of molten rock. Every puff of air pressed heat against her face, and suffocating chemical odors made her cringe at the earth’s indifference to fragile humanity.
Agnes felt her legs tingling as they clamored to carry her away from danger. The lava was capable of anything. A glance in any direction told her what it had done in recent memory.
“Don’t see Peter yet,” said Enrique beside her.
“Where do you think he’s been?”
“Lot of forest around here. He could be hiding out anywhere. He’s got survival skills.”
“You knew him, right?” she said. “I mean, before we got involved with him. I should have realized, you know everybody.”
His face flared orange, as if she had angered him, but it was only a reflection. She turned and looked. A rivulet of lava had broken out of the side of the main flow like a tongue lolling from a huge mouth. It headed toward the onlookers on the platform with a speed that she had never seen before.
The hubbub of voices increased. A woman’s panicky voice rose above the noise.
“I’m getting out of here.”
Agnes thought the woman might have a point. The side stream broadened and slowed, but it didn’t stop. Could it really reach them?
The heat made her wonder how long she could keep drawing breath. Even if the surge failed to engulf the platform, proximity could set anything flammable alight.
And then she and Enrique were alone on the platform.
“I’m thinking a strategic retreat would be in order,” Agnes said.
Enrique stepped behind her and wedged her against the railing with his hip. She felt his hands grip her belt. He lifted, and she went up on her toes. His strength felt familiar to her.
“Do you really want to do this?” she said.
“No,” he said.
But he kept forcing her up. She caught the railing in an underhanded grip. Her biceps strained the way they did when she did curls in the gym, but the stakes had never been this high.
“The pretty dress in Pahoa? That was you meeting her. Not Peter.”
Who was this crazy woman cross-examining the witness as he tried to kill her?
He paused in his effort to heave her over the rail.
“I lied. I did see someone that beautiful before her. Once.”
She wondered what to say to that.
“Look,” she said instead. “The lava is stopping.”
The fiery monstrosity seemed to hear her. It glowed brighter as it picked up speed again. Enrique drew on its power and increased the strength behind his lift.
“Peter isn’t coming,” she said. “You found him, right?”
He kept the pressure on. In a moment she was going to go over the railing. She knew it. She knew everything. Her mind felt clear enough to solve any mystery. She knew that Dave and the other man at the hotel had been double-teaming her. They must work for Walter Zellinger. Dave the obvious ladies’ man, was supposed to bed her and give her the appearance of a conflict of interest, but she had gone for his forgettable partner, with the same result.
It was all plain, but why did she care about it now?
Because of this other forgettable man, Enrique. She had failed him for years and was failing him now, and for that he was helping her into hell. Most people had to wait to see hell until they died. Should she be grateful?
“Enrique, you can’t kill enough people to fix this. Two are bad enough.”
“Who’s trying to fix anything?”
“You guys still up here?” said a female voice. “Damn, that’s nerve.”
It was the voice of the woman who had started the panicky retreat.
More lava watchers crowded up the steps behind her. Enrique set Agnes down and rested his forearms on the railing, as if the view fascinated him.
“Peter can’t come in with you,” he said. “But I guess I’ll do.”
She studied him.
“Relax,” he said. “I’m done.”
“Okay,” she said after a moment.
For a little insurance she took her cell phone out of her jeans and checked. Miraculously for this area, she had a signal. She made the call.
Did the man ever go home?
“Small change of plans.”
“Stay there,” he said. “I’m on my way.”
She almost replied that she didn’t take orders from men, and especially not when they were cops, but this didn’t strike her as the time.
“You know,” said Coutinho, “it’s a shame you can’t represent him.”
“Yes,” she said. “It is.”