You know that sinking feeling you get the moment you’ve done something bad? I don’t mean bad like you left your kids with a random convenience store circus clown. I mean universally impending doom bad. That is what I felt when I chuckled at the elderly woman selling handmade trinkets. I wasn’t trying to be a jerk she seemed nice, but my flight was long and I just want to get my suitcase.
The baggage claim was already jam-packed when I arrived, which left me standing near the vendors selling to tourists. This woman stares at me from behind her cart, sizing me up for a sale, but I keep my eyes forward.
“Where are you traveling to today, young man?” she inquires.
“Butaritari,” I say, quite impressed with myself.
As a travel blogger, I was used to posh hotels and tourist destinations, this had been my clientele, but lately, the industry trend was turning to wild adventures in remote locations. I had to prove I had the right stuff; I had to prove I could live without room service.
“You need this,” she says, fumbling through a box next to her. She pulls out an ornate necklace of crudely cut wood and small stones.
As a world traveler, I have mastered the art of saying ‘no’. My brain is ready for the rebuttal. Go for it brain!
You should buy it.
What? Where's my resolve, where's my stalwart inner voice? No way I'm going soft now.
“No thank you,” I say with conviction.
“But young man, you need protection from the spirit Kolohe Ku, he has seen you and he is an evil prankster.” Her concern sounds genuine. She is probably a former actress, I don’t know, but it won't fool me.
So, I chuckle at her quaint folklore, but something is odd. The surrounding air is thicker. Weird.
Doesn’t matter I see a glimpse of my suitcase through the wall of people, enough to know it’s mine, I press through to retrieve it.
My adventure has officially begun, my suitcase in hand, my backpack strapped on, I am off to the great unknown, but first a night of relaxation and pampering at my hotel.
Outside the terminal the sunshine is heavenly, the tropical breeze is thick with sea air, I’m far from the brutal cold of Chicago and it feels great. My phone died somewhere between LA and Honolulu so no app to find a cab, I’m going old school. I hail a cab, my hand waving in the air without success until one particularly grizzled cab pulls up, dirty, and dented, but it’s a ride.
“The Prince Waikiki hotel, please,” I mutter as I slide into the backseat.
“Sure, boss” the cab driver responds with an Irish lilt. He pulls away, but a woman in her late 40s slams both hands on the hood.
“Stop you, thief,” she screams. Her hair is a matted mess and her clothes layered and mismatched.
I look at the cab driver; he looks at me.
“Is she talking to you?” I ask.
“I’ve never seen her, probably batty” he replies as he slowly pulls away. She tries to jump on the hood but slides off as we move into traffic. I look back to see security approaching her.
“What brings you to the big island,” the man asks like nothing just happened.
“I’m a travel blogger,” I say “I make videos about tourist locations, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds nice. Do ya mind if I make a quick stop?” The man says.
“Uh, OK, I guess?” I reply, “Is it near the hotel?”
“Nah. My name is Shamus by the way, and yours?”
Don’t tell him your name, he seems sketchy. My brain interjects.
I say the first name that comes to mind,
Kevin Kane? That was stupid. He can see the tag on your suitcase says Brad Gardner. My brain again.
I attempt a sly move to hide the name tag, but it is missing. Must have fallen off during one of the flight changes. My secret identity is intact!
“Nice to meet ya, Kevin.” Shamus replies “We’re at my stop, I’ll only be a minute.”
Shamus pulls into a narrow alleyway, it dead-ends at a brick wall with no windows, a single light over a shabby metal door. He gets out, leaving the cab running, and goes inside.
I check my phone, the battery still 0%, look through my backpack for gum, audit the contents of my travel wallet, cash, cards, passport, tickets for the flight to Butaritari in the morning, it's all intact.
We’ve been waiting a long time. My brain pipes up, What if he’s dead or something?
Stop doing that.
That thing where you craft bizarre stories and convince me they are true.
You should go check on him.
After a couple of minutes of debate, I leave the cab and creep to the alleyway door; I grew up with overbearing parents; I know stealth.
Inside the door is a hallway with a single fluorescent light the whole place smells of stale cigarettes.
“What are you gonna do to fix this, Shamus?” I hear a man say from a lit room at the end of the hall.
“I’m working on something,” it was Shamus’s voice “Does the name Kane sound familiar? Kevin Kane from Chicago?”
How did he know I was from Chicago?
Maybe it was the Cubs hat and t-shirt you’re wearing?
Oh, good thinking.
“Kevin Kane of the Chicago Kane family? He’s in your car right now?” the other voice asks “Go get him, he's probably worth millions! I can’t believe that guy didn’t use a fake name. What an idiot.”
Now I remember Kevin Kane, he's the mob fugitive everyone is looking for.
"Shiiiiit ...!” I blurt out.
“What was that?” the man says.
Panic sends me charging through the doorway out into the alley, in my sprint to the car I lose a shoe, my hat, sunglasses. Jumping in the driver’s seat; I put it in reverse and jam the pedal. The car lurches sideways and careens off the alleyway wall, bouncing out into the street. The shattered passenger-side mirror and hubcaps litter the sidewalk. Shamus and three enormous men push through the doorway, pointing at me, yelling something. The damn gear lever won't budge, stuck in reverse. I pull on it with both hands, still nothing. Shamus is sprinting down the alley with the others a few strides behind. He reaches the car and grabs the passenger door handle pulling it in haste it snaps off in his hand sending him back a few steps. By some twist of fate the gear lever releases, and I yank it into drive and slam the pedal. The tires squeal sending me down the street going way too fast.
I drive, drive and drive more until I'm comfortable no one is following, not that I would know I’m not a detective, I’m a damn blogger. Riding the freeway until the sun touches the ocean, and the sky is rich with a peach luster; I take an exit and pull into a parking lot and take a deep breath.
What are you going to do now? My brain pops in.
Go to the police.
Don't get involved, it would ruin the trip, your viewers will forget about your channel, you will lose everything.
You're right, I’ll lie low. In the morning I’ll be on a plane to a secluded island as plain old blogger Brad Gardner.
I notice a duffel bag next to me, I unzip it to find a plethora of passports, credit cards, an old flip phone, and a Twinkie. The Twinkie is mine, I'll take the phone too. Hell, I'll take it all.
What was that?
“Get me out of here!” the muffled voice of a girl comes from the back of the car.
I get out, unlock the trunk, it springs open with force straight up into my face, knocking me back onto the pavement.
“Where is he?” A girl leaps out, screaming at me.
I feel the warmth of blood on my upper lip, my head is spinning. That really hurt.
Probably a concussion.
“Where the hell is Shamus?” the girl says, she is in her early 20s with raven hair and azure eyes, she is beautiful and crazy.
“I, I don’t know” I reply standing up, wiping the blood on my sleeve.
“Well, this is some shit, in’it?” she says looking over the car.
"Why were you in the trunk? Did he kidnap you?” I ask.
"Nah, we got in a bit of a scuffle. He can be a bastard, probably drugged me, he does that when he's pissed.”
“Wait, he drugs you and stuffs you in the trunk?”
“Yeah, we get into it, but he's got those dimples, I'm a sucker for dimples, so I take him back. You got dimples too.”
“Oh I, I'm,"
"glad you’re ok." I take a breath "but I need to find a hotel. Is there someone you can call to pick you up?” I ask.
Why did you ask that? Just leave. My brain squeals.
“You don’t need to stay in a hotel," the girl says "You can stay with me, it’s the least I can do for all the trouble.”
“I can't, Shamus is probably pissed at me,” I reply.
“No worries, the cops are watching my place, he won’t come around, plus this cab was stolen, anyway.”
“On that note, I'm just going to find a hotel,” I reply.
“I won't hear of it. By the way, my name is Wendy, what's yours?"
This time, no secret identity.
"Brad Gardner," I say with full confidence
"So we're using fake names? I get it, but just so you know, I can tell when men are lying."
I just shake my head
"I have to drive, though. It's just a thing with me." Wendy says holding out her hand, "Keys?"
My brain is screaming at me, most of it is not fit to repeat.
Several minutes later we are traveling the freeway well beyond the speed limit in a stolen car with a busted taillight and missing mirror. Part of me is hoping to get stopped, but there isn't a cop in sight. Wendy drives like she has a death wish. Finally, she crosses 5 lanes, and plummets down an exit, going who knows where.
We pull into 35 Kinsley Terrace, the sort of place you would see in a murder documentary.
"This is it." she proclaims "Mi casa."
The sunlight has set into dusk and the street lights pop on as we pull in behind a building layered with graffiti.
"Come on," Wendy says as she gets out of the car
I follow her clutching my backpack and suitcase like they are my only friends.
The place looks just as bad on the inside; the motif is 1985, and the smell is even older. We enter the elevator; she punches 3 on the panel, and the elevator doors close to begin a slow climb.
"You ever do it in an elevator?" Wendy asks.
"Um, I, I'm not sure what you mean?" I reply nervously.
Of course you do. My brain says mocking me.
"You know, get dirty between floors?" she says, looking devilish.
"I haven't no, I mean, I don't spend a lot of time in elevators," I say, even though I have been to every hi-rise hotel between London and Morocco.
Ding! The door opens to the third floor
"This is my floor", she says, and she leans in close, pressing hard against me. She kisses me, a deep magical kiss, then leaves me standing there dumbfounded as she walks out of the elevator.
Hey Romeo, she left.
I shake it off and follow her into her apartment, much to my surprise it's tidy. The posters on the wall are a mixture of running horse silhouettes and quotes about love on the beach, stuffed animals set on the floor, and furniture.
Is she 12? my brain jokes.
"You want a beer?" she asks
"No, I shouldn't" well, that was what I was going to say, but she put one in my hand.
"Can I use your restroom," I ask, "clean up a little?"
"Sure, it's at the end of the hall" she responds.
I pick up my suitcase, zip up my backpack, and find the bathroom. It is small with a window facing the street. Between the buildings, I can see the remaining sliver of the setting sun, the sky is flush with hues of purple and red and, Shamus. He is running up the driveway with the three goons from the alley. Where are the cops?
I scramble across the bathroom floor, shut off the light and try to open the window, it won't budge.
Boom, Boom, Boom!
They are at the apartment door; I slink out of the bathroom and into a hall bedroom; the streetlight casts shadows of the fire escape through the window, Wendy and Shamus are already arguing in the front room.
I step through the window and out onto the rusty metal. Holding my bags I start down the ladder, step by step I work it carefully but the ladder clip snaps, and I'm sliding south like a drunk preacher. My bags fall to the pavement below, I'm right behind them.
This is it, you are going to be a stain on some dirty backstreet in Honolulu, My brain is giving me last rites, poorly I might add, but the ladder catches and stops hard; my hand slips; I drop to the asphalt, my foot twists - the good one with the shoe, and I fall to my knees.
Out of the window above one goon shouts, "Hey, Kane went out the fire escape."
Panic mixed with adrenaline kicks in, I pick up my bags and limp faster than Usain Bolt on speed.
Several blocks later, I stop to catch my breath. Sitting down in the shadows, I rub my throbbing ankle. I'm hours from flying away from all of this, I have torn my pants, the sock on my shoeless foot is black with grease and dirt, there is blood on my face, I walk with a limp and I'm lost.
Where did I go wrong? I just wanted to go to a remote island, live in the wild, and show everyone I could survive the worst. But I'm done, I'm calling it quits. I am going to hail the first cab I can find, pay them entirely too much for a ride to the airport, drop a fortune for a ticket and fly home.
I reach into my backpack for my wallet. I route around expecting to feel the familiar leather folds, but nothing comes up. I panic and bring the backpack into the streetlight and dig more, but still nothing. Then it hits me. When Wendy kissed me, she pressed against me to distract me and got her hand into my backpack. She left the elevator while I was swooning like a schoolboy. God, I thought I was worldly-wise and travel savvy; I am such a fool.
Now add penniless to my list of ills.
You have the cell phone from the cab, call the cops
I pull the cell out, flip it open, battery 86%, this is the best news I've had all night.
I'm about to dial 911 when I get an idea. I fish out a few passports, Sandra Miller, North Dakota, George Schumacher, New York, the list goes on. I'm guessing these people have lost a lot of money because of this guy.
I'm going to make a trade.
Yeah, that seems like a bad idea. My skeptical brain replies.
No, I have a plan.
I thumb through the phone contacts until I find Wendy; I send a text,
'Tell Shamus I have the passports and credit cards from his cab. If he doesn't want this stuff to go to the police, then I propose an exchange for my wallet'.
It seems like an eternity until the text comes back
Shoot, I hadn't thought this far; I don't know where anything is.
'Wendy's apartment building, out front, 30 minutes.' I text.
It will take me that long to hobble back there.
Standing outside the Apartment, under a lone streetlight, Shamus holds up my wallet. This feels like a bad noir film.
"Brad Gardner, I presume?" Shamus says.
"Everything in the wallet?" I reply from across the street.
"Yep," Shamus says.
I throw my backpack out into the street.
"It's all there. I ate the Twinkie, though," I say, in my best tough-guy voice.
"What are all the passports about, anyway?"
Shamus picks up the bag, opens it, checks inside.
"We scam idiot tourists like you Brad, rob 'em blind and take their identity, pretty sweet deal."
"Unfortunately, you've become a liability," Shamus says as the goons come into the light and start across the street towards me.
"Hey, Kevin," I say to Shamus, "Thanks for the confession."
A barrage of undercover cops burst out of the dark and converge on Shamus and his companions. Maybe they were watching Wendy's apartment after all. Maybe it was the anonymous tip that Kevin Kane was standing outside of 35 Kinsley Terrace holding a backpack full of stolen identities. Either way, their timing was impeccable.
"Idiot tourist, my ass!" I say triumphantly.
10 hours later.
I stand on the open beach of Butaritari, my grass hut is minimal but feels like heaven, Despite everything, I made it.
I look into the sky and say, "Kolohe Ku, you can't beat Brad Gardner!"
But I need to change these nasty clothes.
I step into my hut, open my tattered suitcase and to my surprise, I find a dress, a bra, a bikini. Wait, this isn't even my suitcase.
I can't help but laugh. Hysterically.
Kolohe Ku strikes again.