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Sneak Peek: Airy Allies – Chapter 2

The next day, Raina adjusted her curly, black hair to hide the wireless earpiece. At the kidnapper’s request, the ten thousand dollars ransom money was disguised as a package of maxi pads. Each pink wrapper hid a thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills, folded neatly in half. Raina tucked the package into the waistband of her shorts and covered it with her T-shirt. “I’m ready to rock-and-roll.”

Matthew replied in the earpiece, “I’m in place.” Her husband was on foot somewhere near the drop-off location, waiting to tail the pick-up person.

In the driver’s seat of the minivan, Leilani gave Raina a thumbs up. She wore jeans and a pink button-down shirt. Maybe the muumuus were the uniform she wore for work. Her other hand held Po Po’s bird-watching binoculars. “Good luck. I’m ready to pick up Matthew and follow the getaway car.”

Not for the first time, Raina wondered why Auntie May didn’t want her eldest granddaughter doing the drop-off. Maybe she feared this could be an opportunity for the kidnapper to grab another family member. She hadn’t notified the local police. With rumors of corruption and cronyism, Raina understood Auntie May’s reluctance. Instead, she had called her sister-in-law, and Po Po and Win booked the first flight out of San Francisco. 

Besides, Matthew was a former Marine and currently a homicide detective in their hometown, which was probably more experience than the local cop assigned to the case would have. Raina admitted that she might be slightly biased.

From the passenger seat, Po Po studied her tablet. Her grandma’s hacker friend had rerouted the open-air mall’s video feed to the tablet. “I don’t see anyone suspicious yet. Just regular folks using the bathroom.”

Raina wiped her sweaty hands on her baggy shorts, squared her shoulders, and opened the sliding door of the minivan. As she stepped out, a warm blast of air hit her. Her hair instantly recoiled at the humidity and stuck to the back of her neck. She strolled across the parking lot with butterflies in the pit of her stomach and her eyes roaming the scene. 

The kidnapper was probably a local who knew the layout of the open-air mall. The middle area was the food court with wood picnic benches, a large canopy for shade, and a stage for entertainment. The potted plants helped create the illusion of an oasis. 

Each store was a circular or square hut with a thatch roof. There was some attempt at creating a row of shops, but the huts mostly zigzagged around each other, looking as if the builder had a little too much to drink. Or maybe inefficient shopping was part of the slower pace island charm.

The kidnapper was also smart enough to ask Auntie May to disguise the ransom money. Who would pick up an opened package of maxi pads by the public restroom? Most people couldn’t get over the gross factor or the pink color. It was too bad Po Po’s hacker friend couldn’t trace the kidnapper’s phone call. 

The restroom building was right next to the parking lot in this part of the mall. It had two entrances, the women on the left and the men on the right. Smack in the middle was a metal trashcan. Raina trotted over, bent down, and wedged the maxi pad package in the gap between the trashcan and the building wall. She stood and turned around to scan the area, looking like she was waiting for someone. 

People came and went. No one paid any particular attention to Raina. A young mom with a wide-brim hat pushed a bassinet stroller into the restroom. The black hair that cascaded down her shoulders had white streaks in it. Maybe she was imitating Rogue from the X-Men, but the white streaks only made Raina think of Frankenstein’s bride. The stroller’s shade canopy was up with a blanket thrown over the top to block out the sun. Raina hoped there was enough air circulation for the napping baby. She returned her attention to the parking lot. 

The pick-up person probably wouldn’t show up until Raina left the area. It wouldn’t surprise her if the pick-up person also had access to the video feed. She sauntered to a nearby hut selling souvenirs and loitered in front of the shop windows, half-hidden by a rack of sun hats. She was close enough to see the pick-up, but too far to catch up to the person. 

Raina spoke into her smartwatch, a birthday present from her grandma. She had to modulate her tone to keep from sounding too excited. Given the tense situation, it would be awkward if Leilani knew Raina got a dopamine hit from the action. “I delivered the package. Do you see anything, Watson?”

“No one suspicious, Sherlock,” Po Po said in the earpiece. She had insisted on code names for Operation Maxi. “I wonder how long we’ll have to wait.” 

“Patience is a virtue in a stakeout,” Raina replied.

“This is not a stakeout,” Matthew grumbled in the earpiece. “It’s an I Love Lucy episode.” 

Raina agreed with her husband’s assessment of the situation. She was able to talk her brother out of joining Operation Maxi by asking him to babysit Auntie May. Win had agreed when it meant spending the morning at the beach.

“That mom has been in the restroom for quite a while. The baby must have had a blowout,” Po Po said conversationally.

“Silence is also a virtue in a stakeout,” Matthew said.

“We can’t just sit here in silence,” Po Po said.

“Yes, we can,” Matthew said.

Raina sighed. As the director of the senior center, she had to play referee for her grandma daily at work. She didn’t expect to play this role while on vacation, too. 

The young mom with the baby stroller came out of the restroom and tossed a dirty diaper into the trashcan but missed. She bent down to retrieve the diaper and threw it into the trashcan again. The blanket was still draped over the stroller. 

Raina frowned. The young mom must be an old pro at changing diapers without waking the baby. 

Footsteps approached from behind Raina. “Excuse me, can I help you with something?” the store clerk asked. 

Raina glanced over her shoulder. “Ah, no, thanks. I’m just looking.”

The store clerk didn’t move. “We have another rack of hats in the back. Is there a particular style you’re looking for?”

Raina returned her gaze to the storefront window. The young mom was walking toward Raina’s direction, her face half-hidden underneath the shade of the wide-brim hat. “I’ll come back,” Raina called out over her shoulder to the store clerk. 

As Raina power walked out of the store, she spoke into her smartwatch. “Watson, check to see if the maxi pads are still peeking out from behind the trashcan.”

For half a second, there was silence on the line. “It’s gone,” Po Po said through the earpiece. “But I didn’t see anyone pick it up.”

The young mom was less than five feet away from Raina, her head bowed low. There was something oddly familiar about her posture. She was taller than Raina’s five foot three inches and stockier. If the young mom were a man, people would call him husky. As it was, the young mom reminded Raina of a thick oak tree that could topple over a building or Raina’s slender frame in a storm. 

“Excuse me,” Raina called out, waving her hand to get the young mom’s attention. She didn’t know what she wanted to say, but her gut told her to stall the woman. “You dropped something.” She pointed at a crumpled receipt next to a potted plant behind the young mom. 

The young mom tucked her head even lower. “That’s not mine.” 

Raina hurried over until she stood in front of the stroller and blocked the young mom from leaving. “You didn’t even look. It fell out of the basket underneath your stroller.” 

The young mom’s hands tightened on the stroller. She glanced over her shoulder. “Still not mine.” She tried to sidestep with the stroller, but Raina moved with her.

“You shouldn’t litter in paradise,” Raina said. A bead of sweat rolled down the small of her back. If her gut was wrong, she might get arrested for harassing this poor woman. She glanced over the woman’s shoulder to see Matthew looking at the trashcan outside the restroom building.

The young mom glanced up and spat, “Get out of my way.”

Raina gasped. The face underneath the wide-brim hat looked just like the woman sitting next to her grandma in the minivan. “Leilani? How...” 

The Leilani doppelgänger’s eyes widened, but there was no moment of recognition. This person was a stranger. She hesitated for a fraction of a second and rammed the bassinet stroller into Raina’s stomach. “I said get out of my way.”

Raina staggered backward, clutching her midsection. “Help,” she gasped into her smartwatch.

“What’s going on?” Po Po said with alarm in the earpiece.

Over the Leilani doppelgänger’s shoulder, Raina saw Matthew jerk up from the trashcan. His gaze swept the area and connected with hers for a brief moment. And then he sprinted toward Raina—running as if his life depended on it.

The Leilani doppelgänger shoved the stroller at Raina one more time, tipped it forward on its front wheels, and pushed the whole stroller on top of her. 

Raina stumbled back a step, trying to avoid pushing back at the stroller and hurting the baby inside. She tripped on her sandals and fell onto the ground, the stroller slamming down next to her. Was the baby okay? She didn’t hear any crying. 

The Leilani doppelgänger took off like a shotgun blast.  

Matthew ran up to Raina, helping her off the ground. “Are you okay?”

Raina nodded and pointed after the Leilani doppelgänger. “She looks like Leilani’s clone.”

Matthew took off after the woman. His legs were a blur of activity. 

With shaking hands, Raina got up and pulled the bassinet stroller upright. She yanked the blanket off and exhaled in relief. Inside, instead of a baby, was a stuffed monk seal. 

The mom-and-baby disguise was brilliant. The Leilani doppelgänger must have tossed the diaper next to the trashcan on purpose so she could bend over to grab the ransom money and the diaper at the same time.

Raina held the smartwatch next to her mouth. “The pick-up person looks just like Leilani.” 

“Leilani is right next to me in the minivan,” Po Po said in the earpiece. 

“Do we have a clone or robot running around here?” Raina asked, trying to lighten the mood. 

There was the sound of someone talking in the background, and then Leilani came on the line. “Not a clone or robot. That’s my twin sister.”

Now that Leilani confirmed it, Raina vaguely remembered there was a set of twin girls in the family. 

“Isn’t she the kidnapped victim?” Raina asked. What a colossal betrayal.

“Yes,” Leilani said with anger in her voice. “This is another one of Ailani’s tricks to get money out of the family.”

Crash!

Raina spun around and saw Matthew sprawled on the ground in the food court. Several chairs lay on their sides. His face twisted in pain, his hands clutching his right foot. Raina’s heart stopped for half a second before resuming its regular rhythm. She ran over to her husband, abandoning the stroller. 

With Raina’s help, Matthew got off the ground. When he tried to put weight on his right foot, he grimaced in pain. “I think something is broken.”


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Sneak Peek: Airy Allies – Chapter 1

In the audience, Raina Sun Louie watched in horror as her grandma’s coconut bra fell onto the open-air stage. Her grandma continued to gyrate the grass skirt and flung her arms about in the Hawaiian dance. The flickering tiki torches and spotlight followed her every move. Knowing her grandma, Po Po probably had on a beige-colored tank top, but to the audience at the luau, she looked topless.

The other four couples at the table gasped at the performance. This probably wasn’t the dinner show they thought they paid for. Raina glanced around the outdoor dining patio. Everyone in the audience was staring at the stage with equal parts curiosity and disbelief. 

Next to Raina, her husband, Matthew Louie, coughed and squirted the mai tai drink out of his nose. “Oh, sh—”

“No, no, no,” Raina cut in, shaking her head in disbelief. “We’re on our honeymoon. Po Po is not here. That’s not her. All little old Chinese grannies look the same.” 

On stage, a shirtless young Asian man in a grass skirt danced over to the coconut bra, flipped it up in the air with his foot, and caught it in one hand with a flourish. Still gyrating his hip, the man whirled around Po Po and tied the bra on. 

“And that’s your brother, Winter Sun,” Matthew said, setting his glass down with a thud on the table. 

Raina closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Why were her grandma and baby brother in Kauai? Didn’t they understand a honeymoon meant alone time with her husband? It was bad enough the humidity had turned her curly black hair into a cotton candy puff, but uninvited family members at her honeymoon? No, this was not happening. Not on her watch.

She opened her eyes and threw her napkin on the table. “Let’s go. If we duck out of here now, we can avoid them. Then we’re flying to another island. They can’t do this to me.”

Matthew shook his head and pointed to the stage. “Too late.”

On stage, Po Po held a microphone and waved in the Louies’ direction. “Yoo-hoo! Love birds! We have a surprise for you, Rainy.”

The other four couples at the table swiveled their heads to stare at the Louies. Raina slid an inch lower in her seat and avoided eye contact. 

Matthew chuckled. “I knew a free trip was too good to be true.”

Raina smacked her husband’s forearm. If only a hole would open in the ground. She would gladly jump in it. “Seriously? You think this is funny?” she whispered.

“This morning, you were complaining about the slow pace around here,” Matthew whispered back. His gold-flecked brown eyes twinkled with laughter. He pointed at the evening sky. “The ancestors are listening.”

The cool breeze shifted, and Raina smelled her husband’s sage and clean water scent, a tantalizing combination from his hair product, soap, and aftershave. “This is all your fault. We’ve been here three days, and this is our third luau.”

“What man can turn down meat cooked in a sandpit? Besides”—Matthew held up his right wrist to show off the black wristband—“we can’t turn down a free dinner show. Everyone else has to pay a hundred bucks to be here. We have gotten six hundred dollars’ worth of food and entertainment.”

The black wristband from the resort gave them VIP access to the nightly dinner show, and Matthew intended to take full advantage of this perk. Her husband’s Chinese frugality had gotten them into trouble before, like when they purchased a foreclosed house with a body in the wall.

“If we had gone somewhere else for dinner, my grandma wouldn’t have been able to track us down,” Raina said. She sounded like a petulant child, but this was her belated honeymoon. After a yearlong home remodel and a stressful new job, she deserved a vacation. A real vacation—where there were no dead bodies and kooky relatives. 

Matthew shrugged. “Hey, I’m Chinese. Frugality is in my blood.”

Raina harrumphed and crossed her arms. She might have turned out the same if her family had lost all their wealth in the dot com bust like his family. And her husband’s frugality was also wrapped up in his hang-up about being the provider. Asian males. They were a different beast. 

On stage, the Hawaiian dancers finished their act. Po Po and Win gave the Louies one final wave and exited. The emcee appeared and introduced the next act. 

“Let’s go back to our room and bar the door,” Raina said. “They will come looking for us any minute now.”

Matthew glanced at a spot over Raina’s shoulder. “Too late.” He shoved another bite of the kalua pork in his mouth. He probably wanted to get as much food in his stomach before their dinner got interrupted further. 

Raina glanced over her shoulder. Her eyes widened at the sight of her grandma, baby brother, and a Polynesian woman in a muumuu dress making a beeline toward her table. She jerked up, knocking over her chair. “If you love me, you will stall them.” She took off for their hotel room, her flip-flop sandals slapping against her feet. 

“Yoo-hoo! Rainy! I gotta business proposition for you,” Po Po called out. Since her grandma was a regular at the senior exercise classes, she had no problem keeping up with Raina. 

“I don’t know you, you crazy old coot,” Raina shouted back. A small flash of amusement shot through her. She had always wanted to call her grandma an old coot. She wasn’t sure why she put up this show of resistance and prolonged this embarrassing trek across the beach toward the resort. Maybe she had also inherited some of her grandma’s love for theatrics. 

Her foot slipped off the foam flip-flop, and Raina crashed headfirst onto the sand. Great. She lay on the warm sand for a long moment, waiting for her heart rate to calm down. Her husband belly laughed in the background. She spat out sand from her mouth. Her tongue traced her teeth, dislodging the remaining grit, and she spat again. The corners of her mouth twitched, but she forced her smile away. It would only encourage her grandma. 

Footsteps approached Raina. Someone grabbed Raina’s arm and hauled her into a sitting position. 

Po Po squatted down until she was face-to-face with Raina. In Chinese, Po Po was the formal title for a maternal grandmother and also a term of respect for elderly ladies. Her legal name was Bonnie Wong.

Her grandma’s silvery-white hair had grown from a pixie cut to a shaggy bob with bangs that highlighted her warm brown eyes. Though barely over five feet tall, Po Po wasn’t someone who understood “no” or “later,” much like a toddler.

“I don’t know why you ran, but we both know you can’t escape me,” Po Po said. Her grandma’s other favorite word was “mine” when it came to family. There was no fleeing the matriarch of the Wong family. Once you were in, it was for life.

“I have to try,” Raina said in a pretend stern voice. “I can’t just roll over and let you walk all over me.” 

Po Po gave Raina a deadpan stare. “I can see how a face plant would be more appealing.”

Raina shifted her gaze to her brother. “I blame you for this fiasco. I will remember this, buddy. Some day, I will have my vengeance.”

Win held up both hands and gave her a cheeky grin. “She would have come with or without me. I’m just here for the beach and girls in bikinis.”

Raina rolled her eyes. Trust a twenty-one-year-old to focus on the important things in life. 

Win had grown since the last time she saw him, filling out so that he looked more like an adult than a man-child. All traces of his former geeky high school years were gone. Instead, he appeared to be going for the beach bum look with his black hair in a man bun, and his face looked scruffy, like he was failing at growing a beard. Raina much preferred her husband’s close-cropped black hair, a remnant from his Marine days. Both men were of the same height, with a runner’s physique and appetite.

Matthew sauntered over and stood next to Win, rubbing his stomach. “I don’t know what’s in the pork, but I can eat it at every meal.” He stifled a burp. “Are we having the powwow right here? Or do we need more privacy?” 

Her stoic husband had changed since their marriage, but this was the first time she saw him this relaxed in front of strangers. Normally, his piercing cop eyes roamed the scene, evaluating its hidden threat. Maybe there was something in the pork. Or maybe it was the free mai tai drinks. 

“Auntie May needs a small favor,” Po Po said. “Her family owns the resort and gave us a good discount for your stay.” She arched an eyebrow, asking if Raina understood her obligation for the family discount. 

Raina sighed inwardly. Auntie May was married to her grandpa’s older brother. During Raina’s childhood, she had met Auntie May a few times when her great-aunt visited San Francisco. Why did free always come with hidden strings? The six hundred dollars’ worth of free food and entertainment that her husband had bragged about a few minutes earlier now felt cheap in comparison. She gave her grandma a slight nod. Oh, she understood the hidden obligation behind the family discount all right.

Po Po gestured at the woman in the muumuu dress standing next to her. “This is Leilani Wong, Auntie May’s granddaughter and your second cousin. She had to cut her business trip short because of the situation.”

The last time Raina had seen her cousin was over a decade ago. “I thought you were on a business trip,” Raina said.

“I had to cut it short because a situation came up,” Leilani said. “I just got back to the resort this afternoon.”

Her cousin was half Polynesian and half Chinese. She was in her late twenties but going on forty. It might be the sun or stress. Raina wasn’t a fashionista, but even she knew a bright red Hawaiian muumuu dress made a stocky figure look even wider. Her cousin’s brown eyes were worried, but her smile was welcoming. 

“I am so happy to see you again, Sherlock Holmes,” Leilani continued. “Your grandma has told me so much about your adventures together.”

Raina shifted her gaze to Po Po and back to her cousin. “Don’t believe half the stuff that comes out of my grandma’s mouth.” She raised a hand to her mouth and pretended to whisper. “She reads too many mystery books.”

Matthew opened his mouth, but Raina gave him a pointed look. The smart man promptly closed his mouth and reached down to help Raina off the ground.

Raina brushed the sand off her tank top and shorts. “I am happy to help.” And she was. Having grown up in San Francisco, she wasn’t used to the slow pace on the island. It had only been three days—and while she would never admit it out loud—she was slightly bored with relaxing. 

“That’s great, Rainy, but we need Matthew, too,” Po Po said.

“How can I be of service?” Matthew said with a tight smile. 

Raina bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Wasn’t gluttony a sin? Now her husband had to work for his free pork. 

“I need someone to do a ransom drop,” Leilani said. “A few days ago, someone kidnapped my younger sister.”

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