......Doyle Gillespie bellowed in a voice as loud as his shirt, a yellow and red hangover of martini glasses and hula girls. "Sperm-jacking," he said. "Somebody's getting to my bulls. Taking the goblins right outta the pipe, you might say."
......Gillespie smiled at his own wit. I took a long pull on my tonic and lime, hoping it would settle my stomach, wishing I'd ordered it with vodka.
......"Sperm-jacking? How can you tell?" I asked, keeping my own voice low. We sat at a beachside table at Duke's in Waikiki. I choose public places to meet prospective clients, but this time I regretted the decision.
"A bull is a sperm-making machine, Miss Lyon, and the champion stuff gets top dollar from breeders. My sperm is the best there is, anywhere."
......Dozens of heads turned in our direction.
......"A bull's balls produce all the time, but you ejaculate him too often, you get fewer wigglies per cup of snot. The count doesn't drop much, but even a small dip tells me what's going on."
......"Uh, doesn't that happen naturally sometimes?" I tried recalling my college biology from too many years earlier.
......"Not if he's healthy."
......"Maybe your bull got himself in the corral with a willing cow." I was searching for familiar territory. As a private investigator, I'd followed plenty of roaming spouses.
......Gillespie shook his head. "It's the cowboys get the action at rodeos, not the bulls."
......"What would anybody do with stolen sperm?"
......He favored me with the kind of expression most people reserve for idiot children. "Sell it, Missy. Black market. Hell, everybody wants to breed champions but nobody's willing to pay full price. They all want a piece of me." His face reddened almost the shade of his shirt. "I need you to find the bastard."
......"You're asking me to find a thief with sticky fingers?" All of a sudden, a career in telemarketing had extraordinary appeal.
......Gillespie snorted. "You give a hand job to a cowboy, you use a machine on a bull. An E-JACK-YOU-LATER. Not your everything-but-the-smell sex shop cooter, either. We're talking about a serious-science collector."
......I glanced at the ocean, only yards away from where we sat, so blue you couldn't tell where water met sky. The sweet smell of oil from hundreds of sunbathers wafted around us. Without a 'Vette payment to make, I'd be on the beach faster than you could say bulls' balls. Instead I was trapped with a blowhard, talking about his randy bulls.
......"Do you have any suspects?" I asked.
......"A clown named Higa."
......"Clown? My fee's the same whether he's a clown or a bastard."
......"They told me you got a smart mouth, Missy. Quality work, a package that's easy on the eyes, but a smart mouth. So far, they're right about the package and the mouth. Higa's a rodeo clown.
......"Jealousy. I made it in the bidness, he failed. If he tried digging holes to piss in, he'd screw it up. He sees me and knows what I got is outta reach but that don't stop him from wanting it. Here's the kicker, though." Gillespie leaned forward like he was sharing a secret. "Lately, the dumb bastard is living large. New truck, big show-off watch. What does that tell you?"
......"He came into money?"
......"Bingo! A rodeo clown gets two hundred, two-fifty tops, a performance. That ain't putting gas in his new truck." He sat back and checked his own show-off watch. "Right now I've got a container-load of bulls on its way to the Makawao Rodeo."
......Makawao Rodeo. In a state with a two centuries-old cowboy culture, where summer means rodeo on every island, the event in Makawao, Maui was the jewel. A trip to Maui would be worth a lot of bullshit. "You expect Higa to be at the rodeo?"
......"You're catching on," he said.
......"All right. As long as I don't have to cuff him when I find him. I'll draw up the standard contract. Just so we're clear, Gillespie, you're paying for the work and that's all you get."
......"Fine," he said. "Your smart mouth I can do without. But you can't stop me looking at the package."
......I used the excuse of paperwork to get away from Gillespie as quickly as possible. After preparing the contract and giving it to a courier, I requested a background check on Gillespie Buckers, my client's breeding "bidness."
......A light breeze swirled brown eddies across Oskie Rice Arena, a mile above the town of Makawao on the slopes of Mount Haleakala. The nearly two mile-high shield volcano dominates the Maui landscape. I parked my butt on a hard grandstand bench, taking the sun on my arms and the tang of dirt and manure up my nose. I wore a wide-brim cowgirl hat with a flower-lei band, a fringe vest over a rhinestone-studded tank top, and the tightest Wranglers I ever wiggled into. All brand new from the Paniolo Store.
......The announcer boomed over the P.A., "Ladies and gentlemen, next up, Lance Dawkins on Terminator, from Gillespie Buckers. Terminator has never been ridden in thirty-nine tries."
......The gate opened and a seventeen hundred-pound bag of aggression burst out of the chute with Dawkins on its back. Terminator bucked high and turned to his left. Dawkins bounced like a rag doll, chaps flying, one hand in the air. He leaned back as Terminator went airborne, head down and tail up. Dawkins lurched to the side as Terminator's hind quarters crashed to the dirt, but he righted himself, narrowly escaping the bull's horns as the beast swung his huge head from side to side. Dawkins held on, to my amazement, through turn after leaping turn before the buzzer sounded at eight seconds.
......The ride wasn't over. Dawkins slid off Terminator's back but was unable to free his hand. Terminator continued to buck and turn, dragging Dawkins with him. A clown rushed to aid him as other clowns tried to get Terminator's attention. The bull gave another toss of his head and a blunted horn punched Dawkins's bib and flack vest as his hand came free. I jumped to my feet with the rest of the crowd, heart pounding, fist in my mouth as Dawkins ran for the open chute. A clown in a short skirt followed him, protecting his back.
......Another clown, a sad-faced Emmett Kelly type standing in a barrel that resembled a beer can, caught Terminator's attention. Terminator charged. The clown did his best imitation of a turtle seconds before the bull hit the can.
......I'd read up about those barrels. They were made of steel, lined with rubber and weighed in at about 175 pounds, but the impact popped it straight into the air. It came down with a heavy bounce and rolled to a stop. The charge took the fight out of Terminator and he trotted to a chute at the opposite end.
......"Ninety-one points," the announcer said, totaling the points for rider and bull. "What a ride." Dawkins climbed the chute gate and waved his hat, apparently unhurt.
......Not so the clown in the can. The realization that he had not emerged swept through the arena. A hush fell over the crowd. The only sound was the crackle of the breeze through the kiawe trees.
......Paramedics rushed into the arena and went to work. Dawkins joined them. Finally, after minutes of silence and agony, Dawkins gave a thumbs-up. The tension fell away and we all broke into applause. The clown got to his feet and walked off supported by medics.
......The announcer said, "Let's give one more big aloha to Junior Boy Higa, folks."
......Junior Boy Higa. Doyle Gillespie's main suspect.
......After the last ride, I headed back to town in search of paniolos--Hawaiian cowboys--and a drink. I found both in a small café. Swinging doors let me into a dark interior cooled by ceiling fans and decorated with cowboy tack on the paneled walls. My vodka and tonic came in a Mason jar with a side of pretzels.
......Lance Dawkins came in shortly after and made straight for the end of the bar where other paniolos surrounded him. He had the kind of heart-stopping gorgeous features I'd always given my fantasy cowboys. Not matinee-cowboy soft, but hard, almost cruel. A day-old beard emphasized the hardness. I figured him somewhere in his early thirties, around my age.
......I took my vodka tonic and worked my way through the posse to Dawkins's elbow. "Awesome ride, cowboy," I said.
......Dawkins turned, startled. His left hand and wrist, wrapped in an elastic bandage, caught my arm. and knocked my drink. The vodka tonic, ice and all, found my tank top. Ice chips slid between my breasts. I yelped.
......My first reaction was to lash out, but then I looked at Hawkins. Less than thirty minutes earlier he had ridden a bull to the buzzer but in that moment he had colored like a ten year-old. He said, "Ma'am, I'm sorry. Lord help me, I didn't know you were so close."
......"It's okay, cowboy."
......"Ma'am, let me . . ." He whipped out a bandanna and then froze, unsure what to do.
......I took the cloth and patted the exposed part of my chest.
......He said, "I'm truly sorry, Ma'am. What can I do?"
......I gave him my empty glass. "Vodka tonic. And you can stop calling me, 'ma'am.'"
......I made my way to the door marked Wahine, aware of the eyes of a dozen paniolos on me. In the restroom, I removed my wet top and bra and buttoned my vest. It gapped strategically.
......When I went back to the bar, I found Dawkins alone at a table. He had a beer in front of him and a tall drink at the place next to him. His eyes zeroed in on the gaps in my vest.
......"Whoo-ee! Forgive me for being ungentlemanly, but I never had so fortuitous an accident."
......"Is this mine?" I asked, sliding onto the seat by the drink.
......"Vodka tonic, as you requested."
......"Lots of ice," I said. I took a sip and regarded him over the glass. "Perhaps it won't melt as fast this time."
......Dawkins turned bright red. "My name's Lance."
......"I know who you are, cowboy. I'm Val Lyon. Tell me the truth, did nobody ride that bull before?"
......"Yep. Ranked number one."
......"So how do you feel beating a beast like that?"
......Dawkins took a long pull of his beer. "Kind of sad, ending his run. He's a champion."
......"What about the poor clown in the can? Do you think he'll be all right?"
......"Junior Boy's a tough hombre. He's taken some pretty good lickin's but he always comes through."
......"You know him well?"
......"For years." Dawkins lifted his bottle and contemplated it. "If he were to walk into this saloon, he'd drink on me the rest of the night on account of all the times he's distracted a bull and saved my life."
......Dawkins drained his beer and signaled the waitress for another round. "What attracts you to the rodeo, the horses or the cowboys?"
...... "The bulls. " I launched into the cover story I'd worked up with Gillespie's help. "My daddy has a small ranch over on Molokai. We raise rodeo bulls."
......"Yeah? I might have ridden one."
......"I doubt it. We don't have any champions. The best our bulls have done is the amateur circuit."
......Dawkins said, "Genetics are everything. Once you get a good line established, you'll make it."
......"We need a good line like Terminator, but the larger ranches always outbid us."
......I scanned the room. Paniolos of both sexes occupied the other tables and packed the bar two deep. People threw glances our way. I leaned closer to Dawkins. "I've heard we might be able to get the little goobers through other sources."
......Dawkins thought about it.
......I twirled a strand of hair. "Daddy's very disappointed that our bulls don't buck."
......Dawkins laughed and said, "Maybe you just need to tighten the flanking strap."
......In my ignorance of rodeos, I'd never heard of a flanking strap. I almost made the mistake of asking.
......The cafe door opened and Junior Boy Higa came in. Dawkins waved him to our table. The remains of heavy clown makeup marked his hairline and the corners of his eyes. The makeup only served to emphasize the pallor of his complexion. His outfit consisted of a plaid shirt and polka-dot boxers. On the boxers were the words, "Wild Thang."
......Dawkins said, "Junior Boy, I want you to meet the prettiest cowgirl at the rodeo. This is Val, who lost her shirt over me."
......"Typical Lance trick," he said. "I'm Junior Boy Higa."
......His speech was slow and deliberate, like a man who'd been drinking all night.
......"Best barrelman on the circuit," Dawkins said.
......"Spam in a can," Higa smiled, "That's me."
......He shook the hand I offered and sat down.
......"You took a big hit," I said. "Shouldn't you be in the hospital?"
......"Hospital," he said, waving a hand in the air dismissively. " Ain't no insurance company in the world gonna insure a barrelman. No insurance, you can't even crap in a hospital. "
......Hawkins said, "Junior Boy's taken harder hits." To the waitress who still hovered around, he said, "Bring my man a beer, ma'am. No, make that a case of beer."
......"7-Up," Higa said. He eased into a chair. "Head hurts like hell."
......Dawkins said, "Val here breeds bulls."
......"My dad does," I said. "I'm scouting for some championship sperm from a bull like Terminator."
......Higa said, "Don't need Terminator. All my sperm are champions." He passed a hand over his forehead. "But you found her first, pardner." To me he said, "Lance's got some champs, too."
"Forgive my friend," Dawkins said. "Cowboy humor should be left in the barn. Back to business, Terminator's pretty expensive and Gillespie's a greedy son of a bitch."
......"Price was higher before he was ridden," Higa said. "Not show high now."
......"I'll bet he's still out of my range. I heard I could get the material from another source."
......"Maybe," Higa said.
...... I wondered if Higa was being incautious. Dawkins must have thought the same. He shot Higa a glance that seemed to communicate something. "I don't think so, pardner."
......Higa ignored him. "Sure she can, pardner. How much could you pay, Val?" He pronounced "much" as "mush."
......"You sure you're all right?" I asked.
......Dawkins said, "She's right. You took a big hit today, pardner. I think you need to rest. C'mon, we're going to the hotel."
......Higa let himself be dragged out of the chair. "Yeah, all right. Christ, my head hurts." Chrisht.
......"If you'll excuse me, Val," Dawkins said. "Listen, are you free tonight? We can have dinner."
......"I'd like that," I said. I gave him the name of my hotel back towards Kahului. We agreed on eight o'clock.
...... We left together. I followed Lance's white pickup, Higa lolling in his passenger seat, down the winding mountain road. The early-evening sun hung low over the ocean painting the horizon gold. A mile before Kahului, Dawkins turned into a small hotel lot. I hoped Higa would be all right. His lethargic behavior, the way he allowed Dawkins to drag him from the chair, suggested a concussion.
......I continued on to my own hotel. Doyle Gillespie accosted me as I entered the lobby. He wore his aloha shirt tucked into his jeans, a huge fashion faux pas given the girth of his waistline. His rodeo belt buckle was a license-plate-sized hunk of metal depicting a cowboy riding a bull and the words "RIDE THE WILD THANG." I was beginning to catch on to cowboy humor and was not impressed.
......Gillespie said, "So? Did you talk to him? Is he hijacking the juice?" His voice boomed off the paneled walls.
......"I talked to Higa, if that's who you mean. I also talked to Lance Dawkins. I don't know who is 'hijacking the juice,' as you call it."
......I headed to the Silver Sword Bar. If I had to talk to Gillespie, I didn't want him in my room.
......Gillespie followed. I slid into a booth on the far side of the room, still within eyeshot of the bartender. Gillespie took the seat opposite me. He couldn't keep his eyes off the gaps in my vest.
......"These things take time. You have to let me work my own way."
......I crossed my arms over my chest as protection from Gillespie's relentless leering. Dawkins's glances had been discreet and admiring. And welcome. Gillespie's were blatant and insulting. If he weren't my employer I'd have punched his obscene face.
......"But you talked to the little bastard," he said. "Did you get anything from him?"
......"I had the sense that he would have taken the bait, but Dawkins stopped him. We didn't talk long. He took a knock on the head today when Terminator tossed his can."
......The news delighted Gillespie. "My bull tossed him? Excellent. The cocksucker deserves a good tossing.
......Gillespie sat back and gloated while a slim waitress in a yellow holoku took my order of a vodka tonic. Gillespie ordered a beer.
......When she left he said, "Where's the sonuvabitch now?"
......"Back at his hotel resting. I'll go question him in the morning. He should be in a hospital, but he insists he'll be fine."
......"Dawkins. Is he involved?"
......"I'm not sure. I think he bought my cover story. I'm meeting him again this evening."
......"You going to use some undercover work on him?" His grin was adolescent and dirty, a Beavis and Butthead grin on his fat face.
......"How I do the job is my business."
......The waitress returned and set our drinks on the table.
......Gillespie wouldn't drop the subject. "Under-the-cover work," he said. "Use your mouth for more than smarting off. I reckon a doll-face like you could suck the truth out of a dead man."
......I picked up my glass and threw the drink at him. He sputtered in surprise as the ice pelted his face and the liquid soaked his shirt.
......"We're through, Gillespie. I feel soiled just talking to you." I got out of the booth. "You'll get your retainer back, minus my expenses so far."
......"Bitch! You can't quit on me!"
......"Watch me." I walked out of the bar under the horrified gaze of the waitress. Gillespie didn't follow. He stayed in the booth, railing at the unfortunate waitress who patted him with napkins.
......I was glad to be done with Gillespie. I'd made a mistake taking the job in the first place, but I had another reason--Lance Dawkins. I was curious about him. Liked his look. Liked the way he looked at me. Now, I could be myself with him, with none of the pretense of my cover.
......Back in my room, I woke up my laptop and prepared an accounting for Gillespie and a summary of what I had done to that point. After that, I checked my e-mail, deleted several dozen messages promising the secret to larger body parts, some of which I owned and some I didn't, as well as ads for cheap Viagra. Most of the non-spam could wait until I got back to Honolulu. The only one of interest was a report from the information broker I'd contracted for the search on Gillespie's breeding business Since I was through with the case, I figured I could wait.
......What to wear for my date was foremost on my mind. Fortunately I wasn't all cowgirl on this trip. I'd packed a white summer outfit for just such an eventuality. The dress was flimsy and short, held up by spaghetti straps. I gave some thought to underwear and then spent time on hair and makeup..
......By ten to eight I was ready. At quarter after eight he hadn't arrived or called and I wondered if he were lost. I'd wait in the bar, but that ran the risk of running into Gillespie and wrecking a promising evening, so I ordered a vodka tonic from room service.
......While I waited, I opened the file on Gillespie's company. The report contained nothing remarkable. It listed purpose, assets, capitalization for the company, Gillespie Buckers. I scrolled down, sipping the v.t. until I came to another document. This document was a dissolution of partnership for a company called Wild Thang. This was more than cowboy humor. The partners were Doyle Gillespie and Junior Boy Higa.
......I'd bet my Wranglers the break-up resulted in some bad blood. I was pondering that when Dawkins called from the lobby.
......Dawkins's face brightened when I stepped out of the elevator. From the way he took me in, I knew I was right to lose the jeans. Dawkins looked rugged and hot. He wore pressed jeans, a pressed shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps, and ostrich boots. He still had the sexy stubble on his face. I had to bite my lip to keep from shouting, "Yee hah!"
......I noticed the elastic bandage was gone from his hand. The damage from the bull's rope was visible as red welts. "How's your hand, cowboy?"
......He flexed it. "Good enough to put a squeeze on a filly."
......This fire was about to consume us both. "Don't go charging from the gate. You kept me waiting an hour."
......"And I told you --drop the 'ma'am.'"
......We went to a seafood restaurant on Kahului Bay. The decor was all dark paneling and dim lights. At that hour, we had no trouble being seated on a lanai over the moonlit sand. Dawkins looked good enough that I could forgive him for making me wait. My head buzzed with moonlight, surf, and the alcohol I'd had in my room. I passed on drinks before dinner, but agreed to wine with the meal.
......"How long have you been riding bulls?" I asked.
......"All my life, I think. I rode steers in junior high. Rode my first bull before I had a driver's license. The eight seconds is an awesome rush."
......"The roar of the crowd gets your blood jumping?"
......"The only thing that gets my blood jumping more than rodeo is a dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty in a little white dress." He gazed at me the way a starving man regards a steak. Me, I would gladly throw myself on the plate.
......"Whoa, cowboy. We haven't had dinner yet." The warning was as much for my benefit as his.
......Our dinners arrived, mahi mahi in mango sauce for me and snapper with chilies for him. I went slow on the wine, a pleasantly dry sauvignon blanc, because I didn't want to get toasted and miss any midnight rodeo. Conversation with Lance was easy and unforced. He told stories of the cowboy life on the circuit.
......"How much longer can you ride?" I asked.