“Brace, I need you to come to Kauai. I need your help.”
That was the only message on the beat-up Panasonic answering machine that sat beside the ancient rotary dial phone on my equally ancient desk. My office was in the same building that Erle Stanley Gardner had created Perry Mason in, back in the 1930s, so I guess you could call my office ancient, too.
I had come in this morning feeling like a new man. It felt so good to be back at work, to once again be wearing the shorts and sandals that the Los Angeles Times (and soon, so they said, Paramount Pictures) had made infamous. What fresh mysteries would the future hold for me? What nefarious incidents had occurred in Ventura during my time away that required my attention? How many McDonald’s coupons and solar power company flyers had arrived in my mail slot?
The answers were less than exciting. There was one message on the machine from someone wanting me to go to Kauai, there were no calls or texts from Lt. Steven Powell of the Ventura Police Department regarding nefarious events and there were no McDonald’s coupons. All I got was a sheet of worthless BOGO coupons from Carl’s Jr and a flyer from an aluminum siding company informing me IT’S A NEW DIMENSION IN MODERN LIVING!
I cracked the window behind the desk and stood there a moment, inhaling the familiar air. As usual, it was a perfect blend of automobile exhaust and fresh sea salt. It was early, still rush hour, so that exhaust scent would fade in an hour or so and the sea salt would take over. I walked back to my desk and fell into the leather chair behind my desk, sighing deeply.
There was one last possibility. I powered up the computer, opened my browser, and checked my e-mail. Nope. Nothing there either.
Looks like I was stuck with the guy in Kauai. If he was calling about a time share, I was going to hunt him down and shoot him in the neck.
I punched the PLAY button on the answering machine and listened to the message again. As I listened, I sat forward, realizing I should have paid more attention the first time through.
“Brace, it’s Tracy Vang. Long time no see, brother. Hope you’re doing well. Listen, Malu’s in some serious trouble, got himself mixed up in some truly serious shit. Brace, I need you to come to Kauai. I need your help. Please give me a call as soon as you get this. Thanks.”
I sat back, tilting back my chair, and putting my Teva’d feet up on the desk. Tracy Vang. I hadn’t heard from him directly in nearly twenty years although we kept track of each other via Facebook like most old friends do these days. He was an old high school buddy of mine, a surfer and a poet, one of the nicest people I’d ever met. Tracy always managed to remain cool and calm, no matter what the situation. His infectious, congenial smile, which seemed to be permanently affixed to his face, managed to make you feel that everything was going to be all right, no matter the odds. I’d admired him not only for his cool attitude but his amazing business savvy and work ethic. He’d gone from stoned surfer high school student to creating his own empire in about five years. Vang Surf LLC was a massive company that Tracy had built from scratch. Today, it was still one of the largest manufacturers of surf boards and surf attire in the world, and Tracy had become a bit of a celebrity himself. Like Richard Branson and his Virgin Group, Tracy was known the world round due to his adventurous ways and delightful demeanor, a fact that his marketing team played up to the fullest.
But now Tracy’s son, Malu, was in trouble and he needed my help. Strange that I hadn’t seen anything on the news. When the son of someone with as big a public profile as Tracy Vang gets into trouble, it was usually all over TV and the internet in a heartbeat.
I glanced at the time punch on the answering machine. Tracy had called the night before, at about 8pm. That would be 5pm his time. It was 8:30am now, which meant 5:30am his time. Too early to call. I leaned forward, opened the browser, and did some Google searching. Lots about Tracy and his skydiving trips to South America, and his delivery of Vang brand shoes to bare-footed kids in Bangladesh, but nothing about his son Malu being in trouble.
And what kind of trouble? Tracy had said “some truly serious shit,” but parents often exaggerated. Maybe Malu had got in with a bad crowd and was selling pot or something. Maybe he’d joined a street gang. (Were there street gangs in Kauai? I did another quick Google search. There were.) Maybe he’d been kidnapped. Hell, maybe he’d just got someone pregnant. At this point, I didn’t know, and I wouldn’t know until I got the chance to speak with Tracy.
I dicked around in the office a little bit. Shuffled some files, reviewed my accounting, read some newspapers. I went over to the window to confirm that the exhaust smell had diminished and indeed it had. The salty smell of the ocean was much stronger than it had been half an hour ago.
I sat back at the desk, thought about going to get some donuts, decided against it. I pulled up TMZ to see if there was any breaking news about Malu Vang and was unsurprised to find there was not. I found myself in a YouTube loop, clicking from one video to the next following Tracy’s never-ending worldwide tour. His infectious smile and those damn ridiculous sunglasses he designed and sold made me grin and shake my head. Vang sunglasses were so popular you saw them everywhere. With their neon frames coming in bright pink, bright green and bright yellow, their darker-than-normal lenses and the tiny “V” logo in the lower corner of the left lens, Vang Sunglasses had put a pretty penny in Tracy’s pocket. In my opinion, they weren’t the world’s best sunglasses—that honor still probably belongs to Ray-Ban—but they were fun and popular, and nobody really cared if their eyes were being protected from UV rays as long as they were fashionable.
I glanced at my watch and noted it was now almost 9:30am. 6:30am in Kauai. Still too early but it wasn’t like Tracy was going to answer his own phone anyway. I’m sure he had a butler or an assistant or someone in that big, glorious mansion of his, someone who answered the phone and the door and then announced something along the lines of “Sir, there’s a caller for you.”
So, I picked up the phone and dialed.
It took a second before the ringing started. Still amazed me that, in this day and age, there was a slight delay in hooking up the mainland with the 50th state. The tone burred twice in my ear, three times, and then an anxious voice came on the line. “Tracy Vang.”
Okay, so maybe the butler had the day off.
“Tracy, it’s Brace Heller,” I said. “Returning your call.”
“Oh, thank God, Brace. I’m so glad you called. How’ve you been?”
“Good, Tracy, I’m good. Yourself?”
“I’ve been better, Brace. I’ve been way better. You got my message?”
“Malu’s in trouble, Brace. Big trouble. Bad trouble. I could really use your help. Can you get out here?”
This didn’t sound like the Tracy Vang I knew. The cool and calm businessman who always sported a knowing smile and who was legendary for remaining relaxed in stressful situations. This sounded like a father who would do anything to protect his child and who was at his wit’s end to do so.
“Hey, Tracy, slow down a little, okay?” I said. “You know I’m here for you if you need me, but you’ve got to tell me what’s going on.”
I heard a pause on the other end, some 2,500 miles away, as Tracy took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m sorry, Brace. Things are crazy here. Malu’s my only son, you know, and with DeeDee gone …”
DeeDee. Vang’s high school sweetheart and then wife of almost twenty years. I felt a stab of shame that I’d almost forgotten her. She had passed away from breast cancer only a year or two ago.
“I know, Tracy,” I said. “I understand. Now tell me what’s going on?”
There was another deep breath. “They say he killed someone, Brace. They say my boy killed someone.”
“The cops. They’re saying Malu tried to rob the guy and that it went bad. That Malu killed him in an attempt to escape.”
“What does Malu say?”
“He says he didn’t do it! He didn’t, Brace! He couldn’t! I know my boy!”
“What kind of evidence do they have?”
Another pause. “Evidence? What are you talking about, Brace? I told you he didn’t do it.”
“But the cops think he did,” I said. “So, tell me, what kind of evidence do they think they have?”
“They say somebody saw him go in the bathroom,” Tracy said. “And then come back out. Later, they found the guy dead inside.”
“Public bathroom. At one of the beaches.”
“So, they have a witness.”
“They say they do.”
“But no hard evidence, like video or photographs?”
“No, nothing like that. But, Brace, he was there. Malu was in that bathroom.”
“Wait. He was?”
“Yes, but he said the guy was alive when he left.”
“So, he saw the victim?” I asked.
“He tried to rob him, Brace!” Tracy said, and I heard his voice catch in his throat. “He tried to rob him, but he didn’t kill him!”
“It’s this thing …” Tracy started to explain. “Brace, there’s too much to talk about. I need you to come out here. Can you? Like today? I’ll pay for everything. I’ll put you up, give you a retainer, get you a car. Whatever you need! I know it’s a lot to ask but I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t so important! If it wasn’t my boy!”
I rocked back in my chair, the cell phone pressed to my ear. Marina wasn’t going to be happy, but she’d understand. She always did. And, hey, maybe if she can get a few days off, she could come with me, spend a few days in the sunny state of Kauai. But it didn’t sound good. In fact, it sounded like Kauai PD had a pretty good case against the son of one of the wealthiest men on the islands.
“I’ll work something out,” I told Tracy and I could hear his sigh of relief from across the Pacific Ocean. “But I’ve got to ask you, why isn’t this all over the news? Or the web? This is a big story, Tracy, I’m surprised they’re not all over you.”
“I’m working with the Kauai PD,” Tracy said. “I’ve got a few friends there. They’re keeping everything under wraps for now, but they tell me it won’t last long. That’s why I need you out here now, Brace, the sooner the better.” He went quiet for a moment, and I heard what sounded like a choked sob. “Send me all your info via e-mail,” he said quietly. “And I’ll set up your flight and itinerary. I can’t thank you enough for this, Brace. I know it’s a lot to ask but you’re literally the only person who can help us here.”
“I’ll do what I can, Tracy,” I said. “I’ll send you all my information in a second. And I’ll see you no later than tomorrow morning.”
“Thanks, Brace. Thank you so much.”
And the line went dead.