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Battleship, Page 2

Peter David

  HONOLULU, 2006

  The Hideaway was kind of a dump. The patrons liked it that way. It meant that the idiot tourists tended to stay the hell away from it, and it could be someplace for people who were in the know to hang out.

  It was a hotel bar, attached to a hotel that was somewhat of a fleabag itself. But it was cheap, which was something you couldn’t say about a lot of hotels in Honolulu, and that was enough to prompt a few tourists—who didn’t care that the neighborhood was run-down—to book rooms there. Not a lot, but enough to keep the place in business. It was also a popular hangout for the U.S. Navy, for reasons that no one could quite determine. The general suspicion was that the tradition had its roots somewhere back in the days of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Supposedly key Navy personnel had snuck off the base and were drinking at the Hideaway when the Japanese attacked. Consequently they survived, and the place had maintained a charmed existence ever since.

  At least that was how the story went.

  The cocktail waitress looked worn and haggard, as she tended to be when she was approaching the end of her shift. Her straight black hair was tied back in a bun, but there were random strands hanging in her face. She wore a blue flowered sarong—since that was what the tourists expected—but she moved like someone who wasn’t particularly comfortable in it. She’d rather be wearing a T-shirt and shorts any day.

  Pouring whiskey into two shot glasses, she placed them onto a tray and headed over toward a table where a couple of brothers, the Hoppers, were seated. They’d both already had more alcohol than they really should have, but they didn’t care in the least. All that mattered to them was that the whiskey arrived in time, because the clock was ticking down. There were a few other customers in the Hideaway, but most of them were pretty much drunk anyway, oblivious of one another’s existence. “I love my life,” she muttered unconvincingly.

  The Hopper brothers were waiting for her, a bedraggled-looking cupcake sitting in front of them, a single pathetic candle sticking lopsidedly out of it, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

  Stone Hopper was tall and lean, with a head of thick blond hair, a wide nose and plain, open eyes that seemed incapable of hiding a lie. His default expression, indeed his entire attitude, was one of patient understanding. But that could, at a moment’s notice, harden into a look of total command. Considering he was an officer in the U.S. Navy, it was a capability that served him in good stead.

  His brother, Alex, was a different story. Barrel-chested and well-muscled, he maintained a look of permanent party-boy dishevelment. On any given day he had at least three days’ growth of beard, with his overlong brown hair frequently hanging in front of his round face. A T-shirt that read Burnt Demolition Co. was stretched across a ripped chest that had gotten that way mostly because he had formerly worked at the place emblazoned on his shirt. The job was gone, but the shirt remained. He had long ago disdained his first name, embracing his surname and preferring to be addressed simply as “Hopper” or “Hopps.” When asked, he would cavalierly explain that “Alex” was a lame-assed name compared to “Stone” and he would leave it at that. If asked to explain beyond that, all he’d give you was a stare equal to Stone’s look of command.

  Stone was squinting, watching as best he could—considering his inebriated state—the second hand sweeping around on his wristwatch until it finally hit midnight. Then, very portentously, he announced, “This year, Hopps, I’m quoting from—and this one took me awhile—the great, late Coach John Wooden.”

  “Who?” said Hopper.

  “John Wooden!” Stone sounded surprised, even a bit hurt that he had to explain it further. “Great college basketball coach! Maybe the greatest coach ever!”

  “Greatest coach?” Hopper regarded him with a raised eyebrow that was pretty much all the dubiousness that he could muster at the moment.

  “One of ’em,” said Stone.

  Hopper considered that, clearly not accepting the proposition. “If he was the greatest coach, why’d he coach college? Couldn’t cut it in the big show?”

  Stone was offended at the notion that his younger brother would challenge him on this point. “ ’Cause he was a purist and an educator. And,” he added as if this was the slam dunk of his claim, “a man of honor.”

  “So he was broke,” said Hopper.

  Stone raised his voice to drive home his assertion. Because when one is having trouble convincing someone of the rightness of one’s belief—and facts are being thrown in one’s face that would seem to undercut those beliefs—it was always best to up the volume. “He was one of the greatest men who ever lived.”


  Stone was both offended and dismayed at his brother’s attitude. “No, actually, Hopper, you’re broke,” he said pointedly. “John Wooden died rich in respect, and golden in reputation.”

  Hopper snorted, as if Stone’s extolling of Wooden’s virtues was simply proof of what Hopper was saying. “But real low in cash.”

  “For someone who only cares about how inflated a person’s wallet is, you’ve done a pretty piss poor job of living up to—” He stopped himself and shook his head. This was clearly a pointless discussion. Hopper was never going to get it; all he’d do was dig in to the notion that nothing mattered but money, failing to realize that holding that up as an indicator of a man’s value reflected rather poorly on his own sense of worth. “Light your cupcake and raise your glass,” he said with grudging acknowledgment that it was time to move on.

  Hopper wasn’t looking at him. He was staring in his general direction, but not actually paying attention to his brother. Stone turned in his seat, and when he saw the subject of his brother’s scrutiny, he moaned inwardly. Oh God. Not her. Anyone but her.

  A gorgeous young woman was seated at the bar, arguing with the bartender, a big Hawaiian named Akau. The woman was a knockout of a blonde, with sculpted features and piercing blue eyes that a man could take a headfirst dive into and never want to emerge. Add to that the fact that she not only had a body that wouldn’t quit, but a body that no one would ever think of firing once it was in their employ. A couple of island boys were standing off to the side, eyeing her with a drunken longing, although it was impossible to determine whether they would wind up hitting on her or just admiring her from afar.

  She was pointing at a sign hanging just beyond the bartender’s head. “Sign says ‘food till close,’” she said with the triumphant air of a lawyer who had just proven her point in a court of law. She gestured around the still-active bar. “This is not closed. I want a chicken burrito. I just drove from North Shore.”

  “Kitchen closed,” said Akau, regarding her with a bored expression, clearly not the least bit interested in diving into her eyes or any other part of her. He just wanted to be left the hell alone.

  Like a dog with a bone in her teeth, the blonde wasn’t about to let it go. “You can’t stick a burrito in a microwave?”

  “No,” he said flatly. He picked up a glass that was already clean and started wiping it.

  Stone was determined to drag Hopper’s attention, kicking and screaming, back to their underwhelming—but still sincere—birthday celebration. He made an effort to straighten the candle and then lit it. He snapped his fingers in Hopper’s face, startling his brother back to the real world, a world that the gorgeous blonde was not, in any way, shape or form, going to be a part of. “So,” Stone said before his brother could refocus on the girl. He had removed a small folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and was reading from it. “In the great Hopper family tradition, I, on the day now of your twenty-sixth birthday—”

  “Twenty-fifth,” Hopper corrected him.

  Stone lowered the paper and stared at his brother incredulously. They were going to argue about this now? Was there anything the kid wouldn’t argue about? “Twenty-sixth,” said Stone.

  “I’m twenty-five.”

  God, give me strength. Speaking very slowly, as if to an idiot, Stone said, “You were born on March 11, 1980.

  “I know when I was born.”

  “You’re just on a power trip,” the girl’s voice came from the bar. She was dripping with sarcasm. “The keeper of the food. Power trip. Would it really crush your little world to break the big rule and fire me up a burrito?”

  Hopper was starting to lose focus on his brother, something that Stone was determined to avert, because there was no way that any involvement between Hopper and that particular girl could end in anything but disaster. “You are twenty-six years old,” Stone said with determination. “It’s March 11, 2006. So, 1980 to 2006. Twenty-six-year difference. Makes you twenty-six years old. I’m twenty-nine. You are twenty-six. That’s never changed. Impossible to change.”

  The fact that Stone was right shouldn’t have deterred Hopper in the least. All that was required for him to become intransigent was for Stone to make an assertion, and Hopper would promptly dig in to a contrary position. He was perfectly capable of claiming that it was, in fact, 2005, just to keep the argument going.

  In this instance, Hopper quickly said, “Okay.” Stone should have been pleased that his brother was willing to drop it. Instead he was concerned that the only reason Hopper conceded the point was because he wanted to go back to looking at the girl. Determined to make certain that Hopps didn’t do something stupid like follow the impulse, Stone raised his glass to keep the celebration on track.

  “From John Wooden,” he said with great solemnity. “ ‘Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.’”

  Hopper stared at him blankly. “What’s your point with that one?”

  “My point is: happy birthday. I love you, and I’m wishing you growth and success. May this be a great year for you.”

  They both downed the shots. It wasn’t the world’s greatest whiskey, or even the tenth greatest whiskey. But it still caused a pleasant heat as it went down, and Stone briefly allowed it to dull his brain and take some of the edge off his normally edgy personality. Then he saw that, once again, he might as well not have been there insofar as his brother was concerned. Hopper was watching the damned girl, who was still locked in battle with Akau. At least she was locked in battle. Akau was ignoring her, so it was more or less a one-way fight.

  “Don’t you dare,” said Stone, knowing what was going through his brother’s mind.

  “What?” Hopper gazed at him with that patented look of disingenuous innocence.

  Stone pointed at the candle, indicating the flickering flame. “You actually need some wishes to come true. Some real wishes, big life wishes.”

  “It’s my wish,” he said defensively.

  “Don’t you waste it.”

  Hopper was smiling at the girl. “My wish.”

  “Do not waste your wish on a girl,” Stone warned him. “Not now. Especially not on a girl who is way, way above your pay grade. Wish for a job. A family, children. A job.”

  “You already said a job.”

  Stone wasn’t going to be distracted from the central theme of his premise. “Don’t waste it.”

  Hopper blew out the candle, never once removing his gaze from the girl.

  His brother sighed heavily. “You wasted your wish, didn’t you.”

  “Let’s find out.”

  Hopper slid off his seat… and nearly kept going, heading to an inevitable date with the floor. As far as Stone was concerned, that would have been far preferable. Having Hopper sprawled unconscious on the floor was definitely a better outcome than the certain train wreck that was going to result from him hitting on the blonde.

  Unfortunately Hopper managed to catch himself at the last moment and keep his feet. Very carefully, he stood up to his full height and began to half saunter, half stagger toward the bar.

  Stop him. For God’s sake, stop him. Stone began to rise from his seat and then, with a resigned sigh, sank back down. His brother was twenty-six (not, as rumored, twenty-five). Sooner or later, Stone had to stop working overtime to keep him out of trouble. Perhaps if Hopper got his nose good and bloodied, he might wind up listening to Stone instead of disregarding his counsel.

  Besides, he was sitting in a run-down bar at just past midnight. One had to find entertainment where one could.

  “Policy change,” said Akau in his same, flat, disinterested voice.

  “Policy? Really?” The calmer the bartender got, the more agitated she became. “A policy is something that you have on immigration, education, invading a country.”

  He was not remotely persuaded. “Policy change,” he repeated monotonously.

  Hopper had a self-image of being smooth and charming. The reality would not remotely have matched up with what was in his head, had he been able to see it. Fortunately for the tattered remains of his self-esteem, he couldn’t. He slid in next to the blonde and said, in his best imitation of the guy from Friends, “How you doing?”

  “Hungry. Starving.” She wasn’t addressing her comments to him. Instead she was lobbing them like poison spears at the bartender. Akau continued not to react in the slightest.

  “I’ve got a cupcake. It’s my birthday cupcake.”

  She still wasn’t even deigning to look at him. Instead she closed her eyes in annoyance, as if wishing she could open them and find herself someplace else, where eats were plentiful and available in an inverse proportion to the availability of drunken idiots. “I don’t want a cupcake. I want food.”

  “Can I buy you a drink?”

  With a sigh she finally turned and looked at him with those gorgeous blue eyes that a man could just get lost in. She didn’t seem to be losing herself in his, however. Instead she looked vaguely bored. “What’s your name?”

  “Hopper,” he said eagerly.

  With overstated, weary patience, she informed him, “I don’t want a drink, Hopper. I don’t want a cupcake. I want a chicken burrito. That’s all I want. A chicken burrito, and this jackass won’t give me one. You want to buy me a drink? Get me some food.”

  It was obvious that she wasn’t expecting him to do anything of the kind. It was just the simplest and most expedient means of getting rid of him. That, however, did not deter Hopper. If anything, it only provided him with incentive. “Done. I give you my word. Two minutes. Will you give me two minutes?”

  In spite of herself, she smiled ever so slightly. He was amusing to her. “You’re on the clock,” she warned.

  Hopper quickly headed out, his total focus on his quest burning away some of the haze that had settled in his brain. As he passed Stone he said hurriedly, by way of explanation, “Girl’s hungry.”

  His brother moaned when he heard that, shaking his head. “It’s like a factory fire. You know you’re witnessing a disaster, but you can’t look away.”

  Hopper wasn’t listening. Instead his mind was racing and his body was hurrying to catch up.

  The fortunate thing was that Hopper knew the area very well. He’d hung out around there enough that at this point he could be leaning against a lamppost, going nowhere and doing nothing. If the cops should happen to cruise past—instead of rousting him and telling him to move along—they’d wave, greet him by name and keep going.

  Best of all, he knew that there was a convenience store less than thirty seconds away. He would be able to beat the two-minute deadline with time to spare.

  He sprinted out the back of the hotel, across the block, toward the convenience store. But as he approached, he was dismayed to see the proprietor, an Asian woman of indeterminate age—somewhere between forty and a hundred and forty, as near as he could tell—was pulling a rattling gate across the door. There was a heavy padlock on it. Before she could reach for it, he ran up to her. The world was spinning around him as he tried to shake away the buzzing in his head. “Excuse me, ma’am…”

  “Closed,” she said brusquely. She reached for the padlock.

  “No, wait!” He gestured toward the padlock desperately, trying his best to sound charming… or at least
as charming as he could considering he was fighting to remain conscious. “Don’t lock it. You’re not closed until you lock it.”

  This seemed to him to be irrefutable logic. Unfortunately she managed to refute it through the simple means of snapping the padlock shut. “Closed.”

  “Yeah, yeah, but this is important. I need a chicken burrito.”

  “No chicken burrito.” The woman couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and yet she loomed like a colossus in the path of true happiness.

  “Yes, chicken burrito. I see them right there.” He pointed toward the darkened window.

  “Chicken burrito, 9 a.m.”

  There seemed to be no arguing with her. Yet that didn’t deter him from doing so all the same. “That sign in there says chicken burrito, $2.99. I’ll give you…” He shoved his hands into his pockets and yanked out the first bill he found. It was a ten, all wadded up, and he smoothed it as best he could. “Ten dollars if you let me in.”

  She maintained her indifferent attitude. “Closed. Go away.”

  “Twenty.” He was pulling more money out of his pockets, trying to figure out how much he had on him. All the bills were crumpled. It was like carrying an assortment of spitballs in his pockets. He pulled them apart frantically.

  The Asian woman started moving toward her car, an ancient Toyota with rust spots on the roof. Hopper paced her, counting the money he had on him, hoping that it would be enough.

  “Fifty. Fifty dollars for a chicken burrito.” He waved the money in her face. “That’s my spending money for the month and I’m going to give it to you.” He tried desperately to drive home the importance of his offering, not even mentioning that—for crying out loud—it was nearly twenty times the cost of the damned burrito. She managed a store. Her whole thing was about making money. With this kind of offer in front of her, there was simply no way that she would walk away from it.

  She walked away.

  He ran around her, interposing himself between her and the car. This finally stopped her and she glared fiercely up at him.