Mele Kalikimaka from the “Ninth Island” aka Las Vegas!
Will Zeilinger, Janet Elizabeth Lynn & Gillian Doyle at the Border Grill, Forum Shops, Caesars, Las Vegas
Two of my favorite SoCal writers, Janet Elizabeth Lynn and her husband Will Zeilinger visited Vegas recently to research their next noir mystery. Since my move from L.A. last year, I was eager to meet up with them to talk shop at my favorite lunch locale—the Border Grill inside the Forum Shops at Caesars.
Chatting over tacos, guacamole and tortilla chips, we shared info about Indie publishing and our latest projects. While they have each written their own novels over the last ten years, I am particularly fascinated in their collaboration on a mystery series set in 1950s Los Angeles about movie stuntman Skylar Drake, a former LAPD detective, who is dragged into the murder investigations. When they mentioned their trip to Molokai to research STRANGE MARKINGS (Skylar Drake Series, Book 2), I wanted to know more about their experience on the island.
I’m happy to share a brief story summary, the research trip, an excerpt AND a recipe for Pineapple Haupia mentioned in their book:
The Pacific breezes blow many things in from the ocean. This time its power, greed, and murder. At the dawn of the television age in 1955, Skylar Drake is called to identify the remains of a fellow movie stuntman found buried in a shallow grave. While there, he’s shown mysterious wounds and strange tattoos on two additional bodies.
A wealthy Bel Air matron sends her enticing niece to enlist Drake’s help in locating a missing nephew. The search takes him back to pre-statehood Hawaii where he stopped off on his way to the hell of the Korean War. Unexplained deaths, politics and superstitious locals turn the tropical paradise into a nightmare where nothing is what it seems and no one can be trusted.
Our Research Trip to the Islands
The novel begins in San Pedro, California. The clues lead to pre-statehood Molokai, Hawaii, 1955. Even after spending hours searching online, we found a research trip to the Hawaii State Public Library in Honolulu and the Molokai Public Library was a must.
Our first stop was Molokai and its public library, one of three places on the island that had AC and plenty of drinking water, both of which are in short supply on the island. We spent hours going through newspapers, telephone directories, and local magazines from the period. The librarian was more than helpful, pulling out old materials, blowing off the dust and piling them up on the table in categories. We were shocked that after 58 years, the town had not changed that much. Photos of the main street Ala Malama Ave. showed it exactly the way it looks now. The history of how the island’s ownership of the sugar mill switched between cattle ranches and crops was like a chess game and played an important role in the island’s development.
We took notes and gauged our exploration according to what was found in the newspaper articles. The sugar mill was in ruins but many parts of the interior and actual mill were intact. As we walked around the overgrown landscape, our original plot changed drastically, especially the Kapu (curses.) The locals believed the mill was haunted toward the end of its run.
The trip through the west part of the island was dessert-like, flat, dry, red dirt and plenty of places to dump dead bodies. On the west side, tropical foliage with cliffs and beautiful beaches with crashing surf. We took a side road through hills covered with dense forest and large groups of birds fluttering and singing. After a short hike on the trail we came across an old rusty, abandon shack with saplings pushing against the dilapidated roof and bent sides. A perfect place to hide someone or something illegal perhaps?
The remaining two days on the island were spent interviewing the locals. Since we were out of our element and had some understanding of the layout of the island, we asked our usual question, “Where would you dump a dead body?” We discovered early on that people react differently. Some smiled and walked away, others didn’t even smile when they left. However, quite a few gave us cross streets, and specific building on the main street to check out.
Kaunakakai, circa 1950s, looks much the same today.
The largest town is Kaunakakai, consisting of three blocks of mom and pop shops, a single traffic light, and one gas station. The population hasn’t grown very much since the 50’s, and the residents love their isolation. Air conditioning is reserved for the medical center, post office, and library. There are still many unpaved roads.
Molokai is a time capsule. The growth that occurred on the other islands has been restricted in Molokai due to insufficient water and electrical resources. Families still live near the water’s edge and fish for their living. The main street is still the gathering place for the latest news and gossip.
After Molokai we spent two days in the Hawaii State Public Library to get an idea of what life was like in 1955 Honolulu. We even found great articles about the Red Light District, the perfect place for Skylar Drake and his partner to drown their sorrows. We learned there was a large, well-organized group of locals opposed to statehood during this time, and politics under the provincial government in Honolulu was as crooked as it was on the mainland. Also, traditional Hawaiian music was mostly replaced with Latin music, and Huli-huli chicken was developed the summer of 1955. It went on to become a popular food item in Hawaii and the mainland soon after. How about that!
On our second day at the library, the librarian asked if we’d be interested in some of the legends, superstitions, and curses from that time. We spent the remainder of the day reading amazing stories, personal accounts, and research into the origins of many of them.
The two men looked directly at me. “I’m Drake. Can I help you?”
Dolan stood right behind me.
“I’m Agent Miller, this is Agent Tanner.” They flashed their badges, “We want to talk to you Mr. Drake.” Miller looked past me and frowned at Dolan.
“I’ll just wait out…” Casey moved toward the door.
I put my hand on Casey’s shoulder.” This is my partner Casey Dolan, anything you have to say to me you can say to him.”
They shrugged and stepped inside. “Let’s go in your office.” I showed them inside, as sweltering as it was.
Miller put his hat on top of the file cabinet. Tanner kept his on.
“We are investigating the disappearance of a Mr. Ted Stone. You’re a known associate of his. Is this true?”
“Sure, I know Teddy. We worked on a few films together.” I sat back in my chair while Casey stood by the door, “His sister Florence and I used to do stunts for Prestigious Studios a while back.
Teddy started about a year later… you say he’s missing?”
“His sister reported him missing a year ago. Our records show you were one of the last people to see him before he disappeared.”
“You said a year ago?” I thought for a moment, “Yeah, that sounds about right. It was a war movie. There was a battle scene and we had to fall out some windows and off a moving truck like we’d been shot, y’know. This was before…” I stopped myself. They didn’t need to know about my law suit with the studio brass.
“Before what?” Agent Tanner asked.
“Before my last stunt gig with Flo.”
“And the victim?”
“Victim? I thought you said he was missing.”
“Just tell us about your last job.”
“Well, Teddy and I shared a dressing room. It was about midnight when we finished the night scenes. After we changed and dropped our costumes off at wardrobe, we left for breakfast. That was about two in the morning. I took the bus home, and I guess he drove. I never saw him again after that. Flo and I did a shoot at the studio the following month. She told me she was going to Washington to get married. That was that.”
The two agents took notes on everything I said.
Casey spoke up, “Do you mind if I ask what prompted this recent investigation?”
Miller put his pencil in his ear, “We found a man’s remains in the Arizona desert. Our medical people said he was buried for about a year, so we only have bones, clothes, few personal items and his wallet. There was nothing in it except for his SAG membership card.” He paused, “The Union said you worked with him. We found you in the phone book.”
Agent Tanner pulled a cellophane envelope out of his pocket containing the card. There was Teddy, staring back at me. “Yes, that’s Teddy and that is what he looks like.” I showed it to Casey. He took a look and handed it back to Tanner.
“We’re unable to locate his sister, do you know her married name?”
I thought hard, “I don’t believe she told me. No. She never mentioned it. Flo just said she was leaving the business to get married and move to Washington.”
“The remains are at the LA County Coroner’s office. Since we can’t locate next of kin, we’d like you to stop by and ID what you can.”
I looked at Dolan. “What do you think?” He nodded.
* * * * *
We met them at the Coroner’s office and waited for the Medical Examiner to get back from lunch. Casey called the hospital, Bev had gone home. He called his house, no answer. “I’m not worried,” he said. His eyes said otherwise.
I hadn’t been down here in a long time. Yep, the same frigid air, smell of alcohol and bleach have never left my mind. The door swung open and Dr. Harold Logue came in wiping his mouth with a paper towel. I remember he always ate at the most inopportune times, “Hey Drake and Dolan, LAPD’s two best detectives. Nice to see both of you.” Logue was an old timer. We worked a lot of cases with him. He put his arms on our shoulders, “Sure miss working with you two geniuses. I could never figure out how you caught all the bad guys. These youngsters they got in here now are…” He stopped when he saw the young FBI agents standing by the wall. “Oops, sorry. No offense,” and shook their hands.
Agent Miller kept hold of Dr. Logue’s hand and said, ”We’re here to see the remains of Ted Stone.”
“Yes sure, come this way,” Logue said.
He had the bones laid out on the table, a complete skeleton. How was I suppose to ID the remains of Teddy from this?
“I don’t know if this will help you,” Agent Tanner said, “but here are the clothes we found, his accessories and wallet.”
The clothes looked like his. I knew him as a rather classy dresser when he wasn’t working.
“We found a hundred dollar bill hidden in the wallet.” Miller remarked.
“You can’t trace the bill?”
He shook his head, “We tried, nothing.”
I knew Teddy well enough to know he didn’t carry so much cash around. “He was a Las Vegas hound. We’d get paid. He’d go to Vegas and blow the wad, all of it – then come back broke. He was a real gambler and big with the ladies. I’m not surprised he had that much cash, but he seldom carried it around. He either banked it or lost it.”
“And the clothes?” Agent Miller lifted his pencil from his notepad to point at the clothing spread on a different table. Dolan and I spent time looking at what they found. “Shirt, tie, suit, vest, socks, pants. It was all there.”
“What about these?” Tanner asked.
On the counter was an assortment of gaudy men’s rings, a tie bar, gold cuff links, bracelets and a watch. We knew not to touch them. It looked like his stuff, but something didn’t seem right. I took another look at the clothes and jewels, but couldn’t put my finger on it.
I straightened up, “Seems like his stuff. It’s been a while.”
“How do you think he died?” Dolan asked Logue.
“You knew him Mr. Dolan?” Miller asked.
Casey crossed his arms and shook his head, “No, we never met.”
Dr. Logue picked up the skull. “Looks like he was hit in the head with a dull object. There are also a number of fractured ribs. I think he was beaten before being bludgeoned.
“Sorry Drake,” Agent Tanner said, “but we have to ask, where were you last summer?”
Wait a second, did they think I had something to do with Teddy’s disappearance?
“You’ll have to be more specific,” Dolan said. “Part of the summer both of us were on a special assignment in Santa Rosa in conjunction with the LAPD and Santa Rosa PD.”
Miller looked up from his pad, “This can be verified?”
Most of the people who could verify our presence in Santa Rosa are in witness protection, prison or dead. “Olivia Jahns out of the San Francisco bureau can vouch for our work in Santa Rosa.
“Yes, we know her. Great agent.” Tanner replied, “We’ll check on that.”
Miller and Tanner were already in the hallway when a light bulb went on in my brain, “Wait, I need to check something again.”
I went back inside with the other three in tow and looked at the clothes. “These are not Ted’s clothes. He never would have worn these.”
“How do you know?” Miller looked at his watch.
“Ted Stone never wore such a plain business suit. He wore tweed or pin stripes. never plain Jane stuff like this. And look. That’s a white shirt, Ted was a blue or gray shirt guy.” I moved to the counter and put on a pair of rubber gloves to pick up the cuff links. “Are these real rubies?”
Tanner shook his head, “No.”
“What about the other stones?”
“Nope and the tie tack and bracelets are all cheap gold plate.”
I tossed the cuff links onto the counter, “This isn’t Teddy. He wouldn’t be caught dead wearing this crap. Only the real McCoy for him. He had a reputation in Vegas. He needed them for insurance when he ran out of folding money.”
Tanner and Miller scribbled some more notes as I referred them to the jeweler in Pasadena that Teddy used.
“Could he have hit a rough patch and substituted fakes after pawning the real jewels?”
“No, never. At least not a year ago. Last time I saw him he was loaded with cash.”
“Well,” Tanner asked, “Who the hell is this guy?”
I hated to leave the cool, dead quiet of the Coroner’s office but Casey and I were starving. We headed for lunch.
The front doors were wide open when we arrived at Clifton’s Cafeteria. It looked like their air conditioner wasn’t working either. It was miserably hot, but we were hungry.
We got our food and sat quietly sweating for some time. “So where is Ted Stone?” Dolan asked. “and who’s the poor unfortunate fella on the table back there?”
“Maybe Teddy owed gambling debts. He could’ve skipped town and left a dead body for the gangsters to find in his place.” I swallowed half my glass of ice tea. “Well, whoever that was, doesn’t concern me or my business.”
Casey glared, “I do hope you’ll be more concerned about me if I ever go missing.” and took a big bite of his corned beef sandwich.
* * * * *
Haupia is a traditional coconut pudding served at Hawaiian Luau.
1-1/2 c. coconut milk
1/1/2 c. water
1/2 c. +2 TB sugar
1/2c. +2 TB cornstarch
1 c. crushed pineapple, drained
In a sauce pan over medium heat, combine coconut milk, water, sugar and cornstarch, stir until thickened. lower heat, continue to cook 5-10 minutes. Transfer mixture to 8-inch pan. Stir in pineapple. Refrigerate until set about 2 hours.
To serve, cut into 2-inch squares. Serves 8-1
* * * * *
About Janet: http://aboutjanetlynn.blogspot.com/
About Will: http://www.willzeilingerauthor.com/faq.html